Not Ourselves Without Others

Great writing seeks subtlety. It’s the words that are unwritten, the descriptions that are inferred, the meaning that comes across through the subtext of what is explicit that writing excels at communicating. [Bad] writing doesn’t ask me to look within myself for answers. It asks me to look no further than the page.

from a user comment included as part of Your 2016 Authorial Mandate is Here by Chuck Wendig

There was a time when I found Wendig's intentional crudity humorous and endearing. That time is now multiple years past, but I continue to follow his blog, because his posts are substantive and I usually find myself half-agreeing with them, and thus they make for good critical reflection.

The "authorial mandate" mentioned in Wendig's post's title is for the reader of his blog, presumably a writer, to spurn and ignore all advice that seeks to mold the writer's voice into a shape deemed "better" by the advice-giver. Critiquers, Wendig argues, should be invested in helping writers find their own, individual voices, not in imposing the critiquer's voice upon the writer.

And I agree... kind of.

The quote that I started this post with is an excerpt from a very hostile and negative evaluation of Wendig's work. And for all the commenter's arrogant nastiness (see Wendig's post for the full original), the small segment I've quoted rings true. Unfortunately, the anonymous commenter has completely sacrificed any opportunity he may have had for Wendig to hear his message, and chose instead to take cheap shots at Wendig's process and style*. And, as the unfortunate cycle goes, this sets Wendig up to take subsequent cheap shots at the writer of the comment, and all of Wendig's readers laugh at his playful vulgarity, and the commenter seems so stupid, and in some other corner of the internet some faux-literary commenter and perhaps his/her friends are decrying the fall from grace of true style and depth, and no one is listening to anyone else, and–

Let's back up.

"Great writing seeks subtlety." Yes. "Bad writing doesn't ask me to look within myself for answers. It asks me to look no further than the page." Yes.

These statements ring true.

Wendig, and all other writers, regardless of income level or status within the literary world, deserve to have themselves and their writing treated with a basic modicum of respect when it is critiqued. And this goes all the way up the highest levels of critical reviewer. I lost a lot of respect for Christopher Priest when he reviewed Barricade, because he took his critique way past the fuzzy gray zone and into a full-on attack upon the author and the author's intent, rather than focusing on an honest evaluation of the work. For stark contrast, check out how Le Guin handled her review of On Such a Full Sea.

On the flip side, Wendig, and all other writers, have a responsibility to their own integrity to seriously engage with all critical claims against their work.

I get the resistance to such suggestions. I myself have received very hurtful, very abusive feedback. And dealing with that feedback sucked. And the abuse wasn't at all necessary. And it felt very natural to stubbornly assert that the critiquer was an idiot and I was just fine the way I was. But I let it in a bit, and I reacted to it. I had to. I have never had the luxury of an editor or publisher who will reassure me by phone or email that my vision is superb and that my books are selling well. I have never looked in my bank account and thought about how comfortable and secure my writing makes me. When my abusive feedback arrived, I had to do something with it. I could not, as Wendig suggests, just slough it off. He is probably in the minority of writers able to easily do so.

It's easy to see where the resultant conclusions of the commenter's argumentation become scary, because it's a place human society is very familiar with. When "subtlety" and "depth" become so narrowly defined that only those fitting a very particular mold can find their way in, then diversity and originality suffer. But I would like to also suggest that our society can arrive in the same place of stifling homogeneity from the opposite angle, from Wendig's angle–by jamming our fingers in our ears, shouting at our attackers that they just don't understand us, and we're just fine the way we are, and we never learn and never grow and never change, and boy this is a really comfortable and lucrative mode of writing, so why should we consider any other ways of doing things, especially when all the other successful things around us look so much like everything that we create?

We should not tolerate bullies, either physical or intellectual. But we must remember always that we must listen to and engage with and reflect upon the substance of the messages of even (and especially) our harshest critics in order to truly be ourselves.

* A big part of the commenter's argument against Wendig is the speed at which he produces completed novels. I am curious how the commenter would evaluate the works of Philip K Dick, who is widely understood to be a very deep, very literary writer, but who is also well known for writing out his novels quickly and without much editing.