The following is from a rejection I received a short short story I wrote for a contest:
“Among judges’ general comments are:
Undeveloped characters, clever dialogue, weak plot, preachy tone, rhythmic prose, well-presented conflict, predictable resolution, nicely-established scene, unbelievable narrator, argumentative style, lyrical voice, little action, problematic point of view, entertaining.”
I wasn’t expecting to get any feedback on the story so it was a nice surprise to receive it. It was also initially a bit confusing. The messages seemed decidedly mixed; the list of phrases like some schizophrenic Zagat’s review. But then as I thought about it, I was quite delighted. I can’t begin to read the tea-leaves of these various responses. There’s just not enough to go on. Yet, I think that from various points of view, they are all quite valid (except for “predictable resolution” — that one I seem to bristle at, which, of course, may mean that it’s the one that is most valid). And I think several of them are quite invalid. So much depends on what one is expecting from a short short story; on how much experience one has reading short short stories; on how much one is in love with modern American literary discourse; on one’s attitude towards Mormonism; one what one values in relation to prose, plot, characterization, etc.
And I think is a very good thing. You know, as authors we tend to get tetchy when someone criticizes our work in certain ways — and tend to blow critics off as just not getting it or as being mean (because of some defect in their character). And as readers, we tend to get irritated when critics seem to invalidate our personal readings of a work or when we feel that by attacking a work they are attacking an author we hold dear in our hearts.
That’s all (usually) nonsense.
But so also is the notion of critics being able to establish some objective reading of a work that is definitive, that is absolute.
The simple truth is this: ones experience with a work of art relies on an entire fabric of personal histories, emotions, attitudes, personalities, educations, ideologies and aesthetic preferences. No matter how authoritative one tries to speak, all commentary on art begins with an I. And the more art I experience, and the more I write about art, and the more criticism and theory I read, the more I realize that what matters is the willingness to engage soulfully with works of art; the desire to situate oneself in conversation with works of art and the fields they are embedded in; and the ability to conduct that conversation with civility, precision, poetry, elegance, honesty, and self-awareness. A myriad of ways how one can go about it, yes. Better ways than others, of course. Better immune from dispute, no way.
What this means is that authors and readers who cut themselves off from criticism are missing part of the conversation. And critics who seek to control the conversation are boors. We should all be authors, readers and critics and swirl between those identities and among the conversation of works with enthusiasm and elan. And if in doing so we send or receive mixed messages. Well, that’s all part of the fun.