“Moby Dick” is widely considered one of the best American novels ever written. It’s a behemoth of a book, long on descriptions of the ocean and its denizens. There’s an entire chapter devoted to naming and classifying the different types of whale. It’s a tough, strange read and, like so many of the novels in its literary hemisphere, cannot be fairly defined. It’s an adventure novel rolled into a revenge narrative stuck hundreds of miles off the nearest coast, and no one knew what to make of it for decades after its release.
The critics took the path common to many of us with something unknown and strange: “Moby Dick” was initially reviled, then ignored. Melville produced another unsuccessful novel, then shifted to poetry, and eventually died penniless and forgotten, his name misprinted in the obituary.
And now, some century and a half after its initial printing, Melville is a household name, his iconic story of whales and men considered in high school and college classrooms alike. Melville never knew the success of his book, all because of a few puzzled critics. This story repeats itself through the centuries, from Emily Dickinson to Edgar Allan Poe to Vincent Van Gogh to Nick Drake. Critics don’t always get it right.
Of course, criticism isn’t always formal, and it isn’t usually directed at the likes of Melville. As highly as you might think of your art, it’s pretty unlikely that you’re the next Dickinson or Van Gogh. In this sense, criticism has its merits — the theory is sound enough.
Criticism at its most valuable points to an effort’s faults and its merits. These faults or merits can be anything as trivial as the care you took wiping a table to the decade’s long struggle you went through to write your novel. Criticism exists in all forms and should — by definition — include a studied and neutral appraisal of the effort and quality involved in a product or service. However, that definition itself summons some problems.
For instance, who is qualified to criticize? For certain mundane, everyday tasks, a workplace superior — or even a co-worker or friend — will point out faults and merits in your work. On other, more specialized subjects, finding a fair and informed critic proves problematic. On passion projects in particular, the right critic can make or break the artist. The last thing any aspiring artist wants to hear is a misguided or hateful effort to destroy their work.
“Learn to see the difference between constructive and destructive criticism. Appreciate the constructive, ignore the destructive.” – John Douglas
There are a few things that any artist ought to consider when being criticized. First, you asked for it. When you open yourself up for criticism, which usually takes the form of asking someone to read what you’ve written, look at what you’ve painted or listen to a song you’ve composed, you’re opening yourself up for them to criticize.
Given that most people have different tastes and techniques for the field in which you’re creating and given that you’ve found someone you consider worthy of offering critical insight, it’s likely that some of what they contribute will be negative.
That said, criticism should be solicited (until after publication, etc.). If someone feels the need to approach you with comments on something you’ve written, and nothing designates them as a legitimately qualified critic within your field, you have no obligation to listen to a word they say.
A final form of criticism, self-criticism, is probably the hardest to judge. It’s easy being too hard on yourself, but it’s important to remember that compromising your art for the easy way out is never worth it and will make you feel significantly worse down the line. Riding that fine line is where the best art happens. Thus, the most critical limitation on criticism is this: It’s ultimately up to you when to listen and when to ignore. Pick the criticism that seems accurate and motivates you to improve.
Great critics are wrong sometimes, or misjudge a creative effort, or even entirely miss the point. Bad critics strike out of resentment, as do jealous contemporaries. Some percentage of the criticism any artist receives will be bad and needs to be ignored for the benefit of the work. Another portion of criticism is good and will ultimately benefit the profession. And a tremendous amount of the stuff is neutral, misguided or changes the fundamental composition of the work.
The lion’s share of taking criticism is sticking to your guns when you’re right and staying humble and thankful when you aren’t. After all, maybe you’re the next Melville, writing an epic masterpiece that will never be understood in your lifetime.
“There is only one way to avoid criticism: Do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.” – Aristotle
Constructive criticism helps all artists to a degree, just as constructive criticism helps a child learn how to wipe the proverbial table. However, keep in mind that no critic is sitting at your desk writing or drawing or recording. They aren’t pouring hours into the project. Their perspective is a different one, often fresh and insightful after you’ve gotten used to your work, and worthy of your attention. But it’s not their work, and it never should be.
Sentimentality plagues all artists in some degree or another, and it’s no easy task to separate your love and hard work from the simple reality of what you’ve produced. That’s where the critics come in. Being able to pick out those who value the craft from those who relish crushed dreams and artists’ tears, takes a tremendous amount of faith in your abilities mixed with humility and self-awareness about the shortcomings of your work.
Putting your work out there is opening yourself up to criticism. It’s part of a contract you sign the moment you attend a critique session or email your work to someone. And it’s important to go through the trial of criticism to help polish your work. But getting depressed from a few bad critiques or comments is the exact opposite of what you want. Learn who speaks the truth — objectively, not favoring your work — and listen to what they have to say.