When I review another person’s work, I often find myself thinking – what gives me the right to criticize this? I mean, I do have some things to say. I have thoughts. But after umming and ahhing and pruning them back, they still look decidedly douchy on paper. And so, I make a few half-hearted suggestions, followed by a hurried ‘but it’s good! Of course, it’s good!’ After a little more floundering, I tack on a smiley face – a technique that apparently eliminates any sort of ill feeling.
At university, they seem to be mad on peer reviewing or, god forbid, peer marking. It’s incredibly difficult to give an honest opinion when part of you is always asking: could I really do any better? If the answer is no, any constructive criticism will be extremely hesitant. If the answer is yes, I might go to town initially but I’ll probably chicken out and adjust the marks afterwards. I did fail someone once. I felt awful.
The same goes for book reviews. Offering my thoughts on the work of accomplished writers is not an entirely natural exercise for me. Harsher criticism is inevitably tempered by self-consciousness. While I’ve had some things published in my capacity as a journalist, I certainly haven’t written any novels. Beyond a collection of abandoned stories and a haiku or two, I’ve got nothing to show for my own talents. Any writing expertise I have comes as a consumer of books.
But do you have to be a pro to express your opinion?
One of my university tutors is currently working on her PhD. She told us she went to a conference some time ago, where she and a group of students were presenting their work to an academic they all greatly admired. After reluctantly sitting through their presentations, the academic basically told them that if the future of academic research depended on them – their field was probably screwed. She was obviously an expert and her opinion certainly counts, but does that give her the right to smash other people’s work? I’m not sure.
There’s an art to giving criticism and it’s not one I’ll pretend I have mastered. But I do think that any kind of consumer, whether of books, films, music or macramé home-wares, has a right to their opinion. Obviously we have to be respectful of other people’s work, but ultimately, these things are usually made for an audience. If something doesn’t quite work for you, then by all means say so – as long as you do it in a careful and reasonable manner. Yes, creative projects can be intensely personal and subjective. But we’re talking about work you’ve put out there for other people to possess and enjoy. We shouldn’t expect people to silently accept everything we produce, consumed with gratitude that we shared our super special creative spark with the world. Lively and respectful discussion of each other’s work is a good thing. And we can all benefit from a little constructive criticism.