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The Art of Tough Love: Samuel Beckett Shows You How to Give Constructive Feedback on Your Friends’ Creative Work

“If I were less concerned with you I should simply say it is very good.”

If it is the duty of friends to hold up a mirror to one another, as Aristotle believed, and if true friendship is the dual gift of truth and tenderness, as Emerson eloquently argued, then it is a chief task of friendship to hold up a truthful but tender mirror to those things which the friend holds most dear — including the labors of love that are one’s creative work.

By this definition, the great Irish novelist, playwright, poet, and Nobel laureate Samuel Beckett (April 13, 1906–December 22, 1989) revealed himself as a true friend to Aidan Higgins — a young Irish writer living in South Africa, for whom Beckett has remained a lifelong influence. (Beckett was also deeply invested in the fate of civil rights in South Africa and, in protesting the country’s apartheid, placed an embargo on his plays being performed before segregated audiences.)

In the spring of 1958, 31-year-old Higgins — then a rising star described as “a Rimbaud in search of an Africa” — sent 52-year-old Beckett one of his short stories, hoping that it might be a fit for the literary journal Botteghe Oscure, with which Beckett had significant editorial pull. Alas, Beckett deemed the story unsuitable, but sent Higgins an exquisite letter of constructive feedback on how it might be improved, found in the altogether revelatory tome The Letters of Samuel Beckett: Volume 3, 1957–1965 (public library).

Samuel Beckett by Alain Robbe-Grillet

Beckett opens with a cushion of assurance, indicating his affectionate intent and respect for Higgins by noting his initial reluctance to criticize, but then puts into action Emerson’s conviction that a friend is a person with whom one may be sincere“I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with roughest courage,” Emerson wrote. “When they are real, they are not glass threads or frost-work, but the solidest thing we know.” — and instead argues that constructive criticism is part of the creative communion between kindred spirits:

My reluctance to comment has become overpowering. I hate the thought of the damage I may do from such unwillingness and such incapacity. If I were less concerned with you I should simply say it is very good, I like it very much, but don’t see where to send it, and leave it at that. But I don’t want to do that with you. And at the same time I know I can’t go into it in a way profitable for you. This is not how writers help one another.

Illustration by Wendy MacNaughton courtesy of the artist

Taking care to note that offering criticism is a “terrible effort” for him, Beckett goes on to offer a detailed deconstruction of Higgins’s weaker points of style, from small typos — remember, this was decades before spellcheck and a writer this young was probably unable to afford a copy-editor — to a particularly meticulous itemization of overindulgent similes:

“menacing as banners” … “cumbersome as manacles” … “ponderous as Juggernaut” … “colossal as a ship’s hull” … “reckless as the sibyl of Cumae” … “Indelicate as chinaware” … “incorrigible as murder” … You want to be careful about that.

Beckett also reveals himself as a master of the compliment-criticism-compliment sandwich, remarking on a passage that begins on the fourth page of the manuscript:

Up to there I had read with only very trifling reserves and with admiration for the firmness and precision and rapidity of the writing. This quietly is present throughout and I do not mean that those passages are devoid of it… I simply feel a floundering and a laboring here and above all a falsening of position… I suppose it is too sweeping to say that expression of the within can only be from the within. There is in any case nothing more difficult and delicate than this discursive [explaining] of a word which is not to be revealed as object of speech or as source of speech… The vision is so sensitive and the writing so effective when you stop blazing away at the microcosmic moon that results are likely to be considerable when you get to feel what is possible prey and within the reach of words (yours) and what is not.

Folded into the particularities of his critique is a spectacular general point on writing — Beckett frequently seeds those throughout his letters — making an apt admonition, especially timely today, against the rush to publish:

Work, work, writing for nothing and yourself, don’t make the silly mistake we all make of publishing too soon.

Five weeks later, Higgins wrote to a friend: “He wrote an extensive criticism of [the story] which was probably more helpful than publication.” The following year, shortly before the release of Higgins’s first book, Beckett wrote to another friend: “I think he is very promising and should be encouraged.”

The Letters of Samuel Beckett is an infinitely absorbing read in its entirety, full of Beckett’s insights on literature, life, love, and more. Complement it with this compendium of advice on writing from some of humanity’s greatest writers, then revisit Andrew Sullivan on why friendship is a greater gift than romantic love.

Published January 15, 2015




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