My cat, Daisy, likes to jump up and peer at these smaller birds out of the study window. I have a touch screen computer, so as she weaves her feline way over my desk her tail swishes the screen leading to all sorts of unwanted cat interventions in my text. She is a very persistent cat, nearly fifteen, and suffering from thyroid trouble, it makes Daisy needier, vocal and very hard to ignore. I was hoping that here in the countryside she would become more at ease with the outdoors and exhaust herself chasing flies, the concept of preying on birds is quite beyond her, but like many pensioners she remains wary of venturing far and still hasn't come to terms with my neighbour’s distant geese.
Currently I am teaching two groups of writers, one a small mentoring workshop and the other a site-specific course based on the World Art collection at the Sainsbury Centre. Whenever I embark on a course with a new group of writing students there is a period of adjustment as they become familiar with one another and the texts and varied styles of writing. Writing makes us both powerful and vulnerable. Powerful, because we have ultimate control over characters and narrative; vulnerable, because writing frequently exposes aspects of our hidden self. Critiquing work is an essential part of any course; it is probably the most important aspect to writers who want to improve their craft, trial creative ideas and seek validation for their work from their peers. I like to steer a gentle path through what could be critical carnage if it were to get out of hand. We approach the text with certain questions in mind: Where are we? Who are we? What is happening? We later examine characterisation, plot, dialogue, point of view, authorial voice and narrative drive.
Constructive criticism is invaluable to the writer if they can separate the useful from the inappropriate and so long as they don’t feel that it is they, rather than their writing, which is being judged. I work on the principle that if three people point out an issue I really do need to go back and do something about it. There is always the difficult issue of getting work read, particularly if the group is large. I aim to rotate, so ideally no one has to wait more than two sessions before their work is discussed. Occasionally I invite students to take over another writer’s story, becoming their editor, or I set them off with an opening sentence and pass the paper around the group to add a sentence at a time; the results can be informative and hilarious, detaching the author from the intense relationship with their writing and encouraging them to release their grip and be open to editing and re-writing. My mantra with one group was edit, edit, edit; born out of the frustration of finding work arriving back at the group with only one, or at best, two words altered and nothing excised at all. Most successful is the instruction to cut five hundred words; impossible they say, but it turns out to be perfectly possible and beneficial in almost every case. I often find writing students whose self-confidence has been dented; born into an era where vanity was regarded sinful and expressed feelings an indulgence, they can present as edgy, diffident or defensive, but given time, constructive criticism and encouragement they flourish.
When I was at art school there was the horror that was the ‘group crit’ where three tutors and your entire cohort and any passing third year, laid into your work which was pinned up on the studio wall. Fleeing and weeping in the loo was a common response because this was brutal; unless you were the favoured one; the could-do-no-wrong student, the related to a famous designer student, or, and we had one of these, daddy is a senior lecturer in another department, you were made to feel utterly beyond hope. Not so long ago I encountered a writing tutor who was needlessly vicious and withering. There really is no place for this in a learning environment, I am not advocating an all must win prizes mentality, but if it is beyond your whit to professionally critique work with focused honesty and discretion then you shouldn't be teaching.
And what of criticism in the public arena? Book reviews play an important role in bringing authors to public attention; they are the first thing that I read in the Sunday papers. I review books online at Amazon, I find it a good discipline, learning to summarise and critique novels. You may have read that Camilla Long of the Sunday Times won the Golden Hatchet Award having written an excoriating review of Rachel Cusk’s Aftermath. You can read the full review by following the link below, but to give you a flavour here are some examples of Ms Long’s deft wielding of the hatchet.
‘Cusk herself seems extraordinary – a brittle little dominatrix and peerless narcissist …’
‘Cusk isn’t vengeful, just moany;’
‘Acres of poetic whimsy and vague literary blah,’
Is it me, or does that sound like an unnecessarily personal attack, rather than a considered critique? Do we need an award that celebrates a hatchet job? I always enjoy the Bad Sex Award, last year’s winner the American author David Guterson for Ed King, was announced at the aptly named ‘In and Out Club’ in London by Barbara Windsor - the spirit of this award is clearly light-hearted and humorous. While Camilla Long’s review is a refreshing change from authors writing glowing reviews of their friend’s novels, I prefer Elspeth Barker’s reviews some of which are contained in her recently published anthology Dog Days. Barker never shirks from telling it like it is, but sticks firmly to important issue, the book. An award for an outstanding review is welcome, but a hatchet job, is that quality reviewing or is it simply mean-spirited and downright nasty?