I was thinking just now about the importance of honest criticism. Not the kind offered with an upturned nose and a jealous sniff (given by said upturned nose) but instead the kind that is given when someone genuinely wants to help you succeed. So often, we take offense when someone criticizes our work. It's understandable -- for a writer, to truly write is to open up a portion of our guts and expose them to the world, making us all that more vulnerable to criticism when we get it.
But it's so important to listen to feedback from others. I know I've said this before, and chances are I'll keep saying it because it's so very important. I have been saved from silly mistakes countless times by friends who had the courage to point them out to me. It doesn't matter how good you are -- there's no such thing as writing a book without flaw. You must ask others to help you hone and perfect it. After spending so many hours/days/months and even years staring at the same words, you get blind to them.
I was thinking tonight about the poor critic, how they are essentially taking their lives in their hands by virtue of the fact that they have chosen to share their honest opinion. Often they are the recipient of harsh words. They're told that "they just don't understand." And yet, how often is their advice exactly what the writer needs to hear?
Three examples from the movies come to mind immediately, and while they are all fictionalized, they are familiar enough to all of us that I feel they make my point easily.
1. Little Women (1994) -- Jo has gone to New York to put some space between herself and Laurie after turning down his proposal. She has been writing sensational stories to sell to the newspapers, and has brought in enough money to supplement her family's dwindling income. She's proud of her work, but when she shows it to Fredric Baher, the German professor who lives in her apartment building, he expresses his sorrow that she's not writing about herself and from the heart. She lambasts him, telling him that her family needs her income and that the newspapers want the kinds of things she writes. His words cut her deeply, because he touched on a truth she already knew -- she needed to write something serious. Not too long after that, she begins the manuscript for "Little Women."
2. Anne of Avonlea (1987) -- Anne Shirley has always wanted to be a famous novelist, and she has been working for a long time on a romantic novel. Her good friend Gilbert Blythe teases her, telling her that she should stop writing all this high-falutin' mumbo jumbo, stories where the men pitch and moon and never really say what they're trying to say. Anne is furious and refuses to speak to him, but by the end of the movie, she has written a book about Avonlea, realizing how right Gilbert was.
3. Becoming Jane (2007) -- Jane Austen writes long-winded poetry that, while beautifully crafted, puts Tom Lefroy to sleep. He tells her that she needs to experience more of life before she can truly write, and tries to corrupt her (in a very charming way). He gives her a copy of Tom Jones to read, and while it shocks her (as it should) she realizes that she can't pretend knowledge of things she knows nothing about. Later in life, as she becomes famous for her work, there's a moment of recognition that Tom had indeed helped her learn those lessons she was sadly missing, even if it was to add poignancy to her stories through loss.
Never discount the importance of someone's honest opinion. You may choose to reject it, and it's your right to do so. But weigh it. Decide why you're rejecting it. Is it out of pride, or do you truly not think it will work for your book? Good criticism, given with the intent to help and not hurt, is a writer's best tool to smooth out the rough patches and create a fabulous work of art.