How to Handle Criticism: Advice from Some of the Greatest Writers of the Past Century
Wisdom and wit from Kurt Vonnegut, Aldous Huxley, William Styron, Truman Capote, and other literary titans.
By Maria Popova
“Reading criticism clogs conduits through which one gets new ideas: cultural cholesterol,” Susan Sontag wrote in her diary. “Criticism,” artist Ai Weiwei told an interviewer, “is, in the Chinese context, a positive, creative act.” The truth, of course, is that it’s both — criticism is a technology of thought and, like any technology, it can be put to constructive or destructive use depending on the intention of its originator and the receptivity of its object. One thing is certain: For every artist — that is, for every human being who gives form to his or her inner life and shares that form with the outside world — critical response is inevitable, for every successful act of engaging with the world guarantees that the world will engage back. How to relate to criticism in a healthy way is therefore one of the essential survival skills of the creative spirit.
That’s what some of the most celebrated writers of the past century address in a section of The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers (public library) — George Plimpton’s wonderful 1989 collection of wisdom from Paris Review interviews, which also gave us James Baldwin’s advice on writing.
Two centuries after David Hume contemplated the only good response to critics and half a century before “don’t feed the trolls” became the self-protection mantra of the Internet, Truman Capote offers:
Most of all, I believe in hardening yourself against opinion… There is one piece of advice I strongly urge: never demean yourself by talking back to a critic, never. Write those letters to the editor in your head, but don’t put them on paper.
Aldous Huxley reflects on why he doesn’t read reviews of his own work:
They’ve never had any effect on me, for the simple reason that I’ve never read them. I’ve never made a point of writing for any particular person or audience; I’ve simply tried to do the best job I could and let it go at that. The critics don’t interest me because they’re concerned with what’s past and done, while I’m concerned with what comes next.
John Irving inverts and subverts this notion, quoting Cocteau:
Listen very carefully to the first criticism of your work. Note just what it is about your work that the reviewers don’t like; it may be the only thing in your work that is original and worthwhile.
William Styron considers an inescapable yet professionally inconvenient byproduct of our humanity:
I think it’s unfortunate to have critics for friends. Suppose you write something that stinks, what are they going to say in a review? Say it stinks? So if they’re honest they do, and if you were friends you’re still friends, but the knowledge of your lousy writing and their articulate admission of it will be always something between the two of you, like the knowledge between a man and his wife of some shady adultery.
There’s only one person a writer should listen to, pay any attention to. It’s not any damn critic. It’s the reader. And that doesn’t mean any compromise or sell-out. The writer must criticize his own work as a reader. Every day I pick up the story or whatever it is I’ve been working on and read it through. If I enjoy it as a reader then I know I”m getting along all right.
Kurt Vonnegut laments critics’ growing taste for blood as a writer’s reputation grows. He recounts how critics who had previously praised him on his way up began tearing him down once he reached a certain tipping point of success:
All of a sudden, critics wanted me squashed like a bug… It was dishonorable enough that I perverted art for money. I then topped that felony by becoming, as I say, fabulously well-to-do. Well, that’s just too damn bad for me and for everybody. I’m completely in print, so we’re all stuck with me and stuck with my books.
In a sentiment that calls to mind the poet Donald Hall’s terrific advice to writers, Thornton Wilder offers the most lucid disposition of all:
The important thing is that you make sure that neither the favorable nor the unfavorable critics move into your head and take part in the composition of your next work.
Complement this particular bit of the wholly magnificent The Writer’s Chapbook with Neil Gaiman on the only adequate response to critics — some of the most lucid and luminous advice on the creative life ever articulated — and Adam Gopnik on Darwin’s brilliant strategy for preempting criticism.
Published April 7, 2016