How to Use Criticism

In one of the earliest modules in this course, we looked at freedom of thought, and how some forms of relativistic thinking can make us intellectually lazy. A strong version of relativism, you’ll remember, suggests that all viewpoints are equally valid – whether that viewpoint is that ‘the Earth is flat’ or ‘the Earth is not flat’ or ‘the Earth is made of cream cheese and rotates around the moon at a billion kilometers an hour’.

These sorts of claims all deal with objective statements about reality. Ones we can empirically test using scientific methods. But subjective statements are different.

Subjective claims are opinions, such as ‘this movie is bad’ or ‘this book is boring’ or ‘that painting is crap’. Reviews are one area in which a stronger interpretation of relativism is usually called for.

Activity

Look at any film or book with multiple reviews, and chances are, you’ll find the opinions regarding it run the gamut from 1 to 5 stars. This is true even of wildly successful series. (Fascinatingly, it seems that audiences tend to rate the later books or movies in a series more highly than the originals – even though most agree the originals are better. Why? Read this article to understand more about selection bias)

Take a look at the criticism one of your favourite creative works has received. Read some of the 1-star reviews. Even if the opinions about your favourite work are overall positive, it’s almost inevitable that someone has said something bad about it. (And chances are, if no one has, it hasn’t been read or seen that widely, or it didn’t engage people enough to provoke a reaction).

A quick test to see whether something is subjective or objective is to consider: should this statement be expected to hold true over time and space?

The statement that ‘the Earth is flat’ is an objective one, because it shouldn’t matter when it was said or to whom. It was wrong when it was first uttered (even though people didn’t know it). And it’s equally wrong now. (As far as we can tell!)

On the other hand ‘this is a bad novel’ is subjective, because it will certainly matter when it is said and to whom.

A book may be well-received by fans of its genre, but panned by everyone else. Does this make it ‘bad’? Of course not.

A book may be popular when it is written, but not make it as a classic. The opposite can happen, too. Many books have only become respected and enjoyed long after their author’s death. Does this make them ‘bad’? Of course not.

How to use criticism

This isn’t to suggest you cannot use criticism to improve your work. Taking an extreme relativist position about your own work is dangerous too. It can make you believe there’s no progress you can make on your creative journey, if every piece of work is as good (or as bad) as any other.

Instead, evaluate the criticism you receive, and how it relates to your goals. If you’re interested in being popular or making money, you’ll need to listen to what your audience says. And what the current trends are.

If you want to be well-respected in your niche, you’ll need to concentrate on the advice in your genre.

If you want to win awards, you’ll need to look at their criteria.

If you want to be published or have your work exhibited or put on stage, you’ll need to consider those organisations’ guidelines and feedback.

Once you know what you are aiming for, you can make decisions about this information and not get overloaded. If you try to take on board every bit of criticism aimed at very different goals you’ll end up paralysed by indecision. You’ll suffer cognitive dissonance. And you may even become unable to create.

If (or when!) you receive negative criticism on something you’ve created, try to separate the subjective and objective aspects. Don’t be fooled by critiques that may look objective, but are actually subjective. For example, ‘This book has too many characters’ is not a measurable statement. For some books, 20 characters may be a lot. For others, it may not be many.

If a lot of your early readers say that your book has too many characters, you may want to narrow the focus to just a few key characters. But there is no magic number for the ‘correct’ number of characters. 

There may be other ways of dealing with the criticism, too. You could make the characters more distinct. Or reduce the number of nicknames they have, to make them easier to keep track of. Consider which aspects of the criticism might be constructive. Ignore everything else.

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