The Wrong Kind of Criticism Can Really Kick Your Ass

I love picking out books to take along on vacation. I just got back from a wonderful week away with my family where I ultimately read Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger, (creepy good fun) but this wasn’t my first choice. As I was looking at the books on my shelves, I came across Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping, and wondered why I wasn’t more familiar with it. It’s become a classic, I generally love family stories, and I’ve always been attracted to symbolism about water (I’m convinced this comes from growing up on one of the Great Lakes). It seemed like the kind of novel I would love and like a perfect travel book, since as a bonus, it’s rather slim. Happy to have found something, I sat down for a couple of minutes just to read a few pages. I was intrigued, but suddenly remembered I had read it before, and I didn’t have fond memories of Housekeeping at all.

While I didn’t get very good grades in high school, I surprised myself by doing very well during my first semester of college. I loved my classes and for the first time felt very engaged and excited by learning. But then I signed up for a Women’s Fiction seminar. It sounded innocent enough. We were going to read Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and of course Marilyn Robinson. I read novels all the time, so I figured reading novels for a class would be simple, or at the very least enjoyable. Apparently not. I still remember how uneasy I felt in that class. I read the books faithfully. . although in the class they were suddenly referred to only as “texts” – hello! Pretentious! Amy, the graduate student who taught the class found everything I said trite – I wasn’t digging “deep enough into the text.” They were novels, and quite good ones, but did that mean we had to analyze them to death? I was never sure what she wanted, and the harder I tried the more I floundered. But the real reason I will probably never enjoy Housekeeping comes from what happened after my first exam. I had read every book and come to every class – I was confident I understood what occurred in these books, yet I got my exam book back to find that I had received a “D.” Ouch. I will never forget approaching Amy, (who wore Frye motorcycle boots by the way) and asking her about my grade. I didn’t think it was possible that the grade reflected my understanding of “the texts.” Her response? “Well, you probably do understand them. It’s just that you can’t write.” WTF? Now, I’m fairly certain I write better now than I did then, but is that any way to talk to a student? Until I came across that copy of “Marilyn Robinson’s text” I had completely forgotten about that conversation, but what I do know is this. I’ve always been careful about how I give criticism to writers. I’m always honest but gentle – and if I permanently spoiled a novel for someone, I’d be pretty sorry.

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10 Comments

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10 responses to “The Wrong Kind of Criticism Can Really Kick Your Ass

  1. The old saying… it’s not what you said, but how you said it… comes to mind. I think anyone in an authority position should be kind in their criticism. I’ve seen kids completely turned off in art classes because a snooty teacher tells them they just don’t ‘have it’. Meanwhile, if she had ‘had it’ she’d be in all the chic galleries and not teaching kids!
    I love teachers, just not those that have a bitter streak.
    Good post! love the boots, too.

  2. It makes me sad that someone with a chance to encourage and nurture a young intellect chooses instead to discourage and wound.

  3. did she ride a harley? you really can’t trust someone who wears motorcycle boots but doesn’t ride a bike.

  4. Hilarious. .

    So funny you should say that. I already looked at my schools women’s studies department to see if anyone named Amy still taught there. I can’t remember her last name to save my life — and I got rid of everything having to do with that class ages ago.

  5. I think the real issue is English grad students. Each one I had seemed to think far to highly of themselves.

    I loved the printed word as much as the next English major, but having someone also tell me nothing but criticism in every single meeting only further expanded my view that my grad student teachers were usually still simply students themselves to offer any real guidance.

  6. I had a similar feeling towards my “Experimental Writing” class at University. Despite reading all the “texts” and showing up to all the classes, I still had no effing clue what anyone was talking about. To be fair, digging deep into sections of ‘Tender Buttons’ by Gertrude Stein was like clawing at a block of concrete with a blunt spoon. I didn’t get it – at all. I wasn’t even sure what I was supposed to be getting.

    Thankfully, my tutor was never that insulting towards me personally. I can’t say I’m surprised you still have those feelings towards your tutor though, and the book. Her class sounded like a big self-congratulatory I-think-I-am-awesome-fest. Never trust the opinion of a woman in poor footwear – even if they profess do to be a feminist.

    Incidentally, I’ve just sent the first draft of my novel to someone for some feedback, and I feel sick every time I think about it… Can I cry now?

    • I suspect I would have gotten a big fat F in experimental writing since I couldn’t get through a class where we read Toni Morrison! Congrats on sending out your novel! Scary, yes – but totally essential. I just wrote a chapter on giving and taking criticism. . so all this stuff is much on my mind.

  7. “you can’t write.” ..congrats on not ending up in prison that day.

    I can’t imagine saying that to someone, for any reason, ever.

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