18 December 2009

Writing Advice on Responding to Criticism

There’s the wrong way, as in the recent case study dissected by Teresa Nielsen Hayden at Making Light. And there’s the right way, from an anecdote the poet Alexander Pope told about himself and the first Earl of Halifax, who actually did a spot of writing himself, what what:

When I had finished the two or three first books of my translation of the Iliad, that Lord desired to have the pleasure of hearing them read at his house. Addison, Congreve, and Garth were there at the reading.

In four or five places Lord Halifax stopped me very civilly, and with a speech each time of much the same kind, “I beg your pardon, Mr. Pope, but there is something in that passage that does not quite please me. Be so good as to mark the place, and consider it a little more at your leisure: I am sure you can give it a better turn.”

I returned from Lord Halifax’s with Dr. Garth, in his chariot; and as we were going along, was saying to the Doctor, that my lord had laid me under a good deal of difficulty, by such loose and general observations; that I had been thinking over the passages ever since, and could not guess what it was that offended his lordship in either of them.

Garth laughed heartily at my embarrassment; said I had not been long enough acquainted with Lord Halifax to know his way yet; that I need not puzzle myself in looking those places over and over again when I got home. “All you need do,” said he, “is to leave them just as they are; call on Lord Halifax two or three months hence; thank him for his kind observations on those passages; and then read them to him as if altered. I have known him much longer than you have, and will be answerable for the event.”

I followed his advice; waited on Lord Halifax some time after; said I hoped he would find his objections to those passages removed, and read them to him exactly as they were at first. His lordship was extremely pleased with them, and cried out, “Ay, now, Mr. Pope, they are perfectly right; nothing can be better.”
Of course, the famously thin-skinned Pope was probably a lot more emotional during the reading and the chariot ride than this story suggests. But Pope was also entirely dependent on rich patrons, so he had to grit his teeth. In 1714 he gave the same earl the first volume of his Iliad translation and wrote a fawning letter that said, in part: “It is indeed a high strain of generosity in you, to think of making me easie all my life, only because I have been so happy as to divert you an [h]our or two…”


Sam said...

I wonder how he would have responded to this critique recently added to the comments of one of my pages regarding poetry:

"wtf?? yal stupid man u guys dont know poetry for [bleep] man seriously...if yal wanna hear true poetry hit me up on myspace:"

J. L. Bell said...

Those spam commenters are getting more subtle all the time.

James C. Wallace II said...

As a new author, I have had some difficulty dealing with harsh criticism. I've not handled it in the best way possible but I do take comfort in the fact that my target audience (10-12 year olds) love my writing, so I take critiques from adults with a bit more patience. After all, my book wasn't meant for them anyway. I hope to do better when my next book comes out.

J. L. Bell said...

Pope did two things right, I believe. He thought hard about the passages Halifax felt could be improved, even if he decided he didn’t agree. And he responded with polite thanks, though these days fawning isn’t necessary. Once a book is out, it’s too late for rethinking, but not too late for polite thanks and moving on.

Sam said...

The urge to defend oneself is hard to control.
The frustration of having someone criticize you without understanding what you were doing is intolerable.

Yet, once you've defended yourself, there's little chance that the critic has actually changed his mind about your work. And every chance that an ugly scene has played out.

All the more reason to be a reclusive author.