Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Criticism and Rejection

I don't know if I want to read my reviews or not.

Apparently there will be reviews. And I have seen enough films in which actors crowd around the morning papers after a wild cast party to know that reviews are eagerly expected things. But the very first review of my column I ever read--a letter to the editor--was so acid that I almost quit right then and there. It insinuated that I could be an anti-Semite, and it touched upon the dark days of 1930s Germany. Needless to say, the writers of this letter seemed to have entirely missed the point of my article, which was about a conversation I had with a sweet teenage Jehovah's Witness girl with whom I sat on a seven hour bus trip.

Happily, the editor cut out the worst bit of this letter before he ran it. And, even better, there followed two or three letters defending the article and my writing in general. I was sincerely grateful, for the first letter really hurt, and I had an enormous row with my editor over it. He simply could not understand what the problem was, and at last we realized that decades in the newspaper biz had given him an skin like rhinoceros hide and I was still a baby, um, rhinoceros, small and tender.

This morning my friend sent me this cartoon, and I wondered why criticism always outweighs compliments in our minds. I also wondered why we hate and fear criticism so much, when some criticism is helpful.

Take, for example, my fuzzy red hair. I have more hair on my head than most people. Possibly twice as much. And as a child, there were two camps: adults, who loved my hair and said they wished they had it, and children, who mocked my hair and said
I was ugly. My poor mother tried to convince me, day after day, that there was nothing wrong with my hair and that I was not ugly. So why, I wonder, did I side with the children against the adults? Even today I sidle into hair salons feeling deeply apologetic.

Then, in contrast, take a certain high school newspaper writer. He was by far the most attentive of all the students who came to hear me talk one day. He presented me with his work afterwards, and after reading it, I said "Hmm...lots of clichés".

The boy's face fell, and I could have kicked myself. For teenage writing it was probably very good. From the way his teachers hovered, I guessed that he was probably one of the lights of their lives, and that he was unused to criticism. So I told him what was good about his article, too, and I hope he is still writing. How awful if I have been the frost that killed a flowering talent. He, too, was still a baby rhinoceros.

But, you know, the boy did use a lot of clichés, and I would have been remiss not to point out that fact. There is a huge difference between honest criticism and personal rejection, even if we tend to blur these things in our hurting minds. Letters to the editor, and maybe book reviews, can fall into either camp.

What I wish I could do, and what I think is a useful goal for anyone who has not yet mastered it, is to be able to shake off rejection and embrace good criticism. A rather "progressive" theology prof of mine once praised the humility of a rather "progressive" theologian, who, when asked about the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith statement about his dodgy writing, said that he had learned a lot from it. That, I think, is the right spirit to take letters from the CDF, and if I ever have the stature and the dodginess to ring alarm bells at the CDF, I hope I will learn from them too.

One problem is that our wellwishers are not always brilliant communicators and so their criticism can come across as rejection rather than as useful. So I guess it would be helpful, in moments of doubt, to ask for further clarification.

Critic: Hey fuzzhead! Didja stick your finger in a light socket?

Seraphic: I'm not sure what you mean here. Are you concerned for my health?

Critic: Freak! Did you know your publishing house once published a book by Hans Küng?

Seraphic: I still don't think I get you. Are you concerned that I have written untruths about the faith?

Critic: Lefty! Fuzzhead! Pinko commie traddie fuzzhead freak!

Oh, my darlingses. It is a jungle out there, and we're all just baby rhinoceri, trying to flourish. May we all grow in skin thickness and judgment.


Pedantic Classicist said...

Thank you, Seraphic, for this helpful reminder of the importance of not getting hung up on criticism. I'd like to think my skin is thicker now after several years of grad school. Still, I get a little miffed if I get even one vaguely critical comment on student evaluations of a course I'm teaching. So much for all the positive comments! I made a point last semester of only reading the comments (positive and negative) once, and of trying to make a few adjustments in my teaching in response to a couple of critiques. So far, so good!

Oh, and lest I fail to live up to my name, a really pedantic correction: "rhinoceros" is 3rd declension, not 2nd. Hence, you may call them "rhinoceroses", but you must not (not even in English, by Pan!) call them "rhinoceri." ;)

[extra points to anyone who guesses the Greek/Latin plural! No cheating!]

Seraphic said...

Oooh! Student evaluations. I did, too. I remember one student who really trashed me. And I was shocked because I was pretty sure who it was (as a writing teacher, I got to know both handwriting and style very well), and I had taken special pains with this girl, had worked really hard to help her improve her writing.

Meanwhile, this happened over five years ago, and I still remember! Do I remember the nicest student comment ever? No. Well, I do remember the remark on RateMyProfessor.Com saying I was cute and wondering if I were still single.

Anna said...

OOo, yes, getting adjusted to criticism is so hard!! I've always been told by professors that if someone looks at your work and criticizes it, they're criticizing your WORK and not YOU!

However, that's also tough, because our work is, in essence, an extension of ourselves.

Dominic Mary said...

do remember that baby rhinos (they're too small to need a long word !) grow up to be nice cute, cuddly, chunky, vicious rhinoceroses . . . be strong, and endure, and you too will end up with a hide thick enough to cope with anything !

Pedantic Classicist;
whilst you are (of course) right about the English plural, the authority for that is (and should be stated to be) the OED, and not the classical form : as you know, that cannot always be relied upon.

Pedantic Classicist said...


Haha, the comment from Ratemyprofessors was funny. I do wonder how seriously you can take a website that allows you to rate your teacher "hot" with a pepper symbol! But I digress. Don't you miss teaching? Or do you feel that "writer" is more your bag?

Dominic Mary, fair enough. What would we do without the OED? But my point wasn't to insist that the classical form is authoritative in English. Since I know that Seraphic is quite familiar with Latin, I assumed that what she did was misidentify "rhinoceros" as a 2nd decl. noun (due to the -os ending), NOT randomly decide to pluralize a classical word by changing the ending to "i", as so many erroneously do. Hence the distinction I made between declensions. Hippopotamus would be a good example of a (2nd decl) Greek word you CAN pluralize with -i, if you want to.

The third declension in both Latin and Greek always mucks things up! But I wouldn't have it any other way...

Agh, my comments are too long. Sorry, Seraphic. And happy blogging/book-selling! PC

MargoB said...

Well, I'm not sure I agree. But it depends on what you mean by "growing in skin thickness."

I'm not convinced He wants us to lose our sensitivity of heart; rather the opposite, I'd say. But I am sure He doesn't want us swallowing lies! Someone else's ill opinion of me (or my perception of such) needs to hold much less influence over me than the truth that I am loved by Him.

Here is where our estimative sense -- and other things, too -- comes into play. We can know the difference between truth and lies intellectually, but not always love what is true and hate what is false. We do not always estimate them properly; we find that we have some affinity for what is false, and a lack of attraction to what is true. Then there's always the fear in us that the lies may be somewhat true -- a sad resonance that helps us forget the truth of who we are, and Who loves us.

So I keep a wary eye out for the times when I inadvertently favor some lie just tossed at me, and ask Him to look after my sensitive heart -- and help me not believe lies!

Catherine said...