On bad criticism

by look i have opinions

The two January 2014 comments on this post are amazing to me. I want to find their obtuseness gratifying, and I guess some part of me does, but at the same time I’m almost literally clutching my head.

(Dear gods, grant me that I may never be so clueless as a critic—or at least grant me the power to delete embarrassing old blog posts.)

If you read “Bullet in the Brain” while holding the same premise as these two commenters—that the main character is supposed to be admirable, even likable, from the start—then yes, it is a terrible story. In this reading, the author/narrator opens by boasting about how superior Anders is, then shows him being snarky and fearless to the end, and then gives a lengthy eulogy about his dull personal life and his passion (genius?) for language. That’s not even a complete story. There’s no tension, no surprise.

How did these two commenters misread the piece so badly? I suspect they have both read too much bad amateur writing, in workshop groups or on fanfiction sites. Making the main character the hero of the piece is a natural, obvious choice for beginning writers, and making the hero an idealized self-insert is an easy mistake to make. If you spend a lot of time critiquing that kind of stuff, without being aware of more sophisticated and risk-taking writing, then you probably develop a habit of skimming for common mistakes.

One thing I genuinely admire about these commenters is that they make their faulty premise explicit. That’s something that a lot of workshop critiquers forget to do, because they assume they don’t need to. Criticism is only meaningful when it includes an interpretation of the work being criticized: What is this piece about? What is this character portrayal supposed to convey?