book reviews, Literary critique, show case


Toxic Positivity Is Very Real, and Very Annoying.
Psychologists say forcing ourselves or others to be positive can be harmful to our mental well-being and our relationships. This is because practicing false cheerfulness— which they call “toxic positivity” —keeps us from addressing reality.
Details here.

Specific comments about another author’s work can be truthful, helpful and painful. Sacrificing truth to prevent pain is not helpful. None of us want that. We work hard to improve and we have all winced at positive but useless comments.

Criticism, as the analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of a literary work, has a wide history. There’s Formalist criticism, Gender criticism, Marxist criticism, Psychoanalytic criticism, Russian formalism, Reader Response criticism, even Critical criticism. And we don’t have time for all that.

I suspect that trusting the author who asks for criticism and truthfully giving what help we can competently offer, will work most of the time. Sue Ranscht’s Writers Co-op Show Case allows just that. Check it out if you’re looking for criticism &/or are willing to criticize another author’s writing.

Of course, the real fun in criticism is when you don’t like an author and can say things like, “If you think he’s good now, you should read his writing from two or three years ago.”


23 thoughts on “USEFUL CRITICISM

  1. Perry Palin says:

    I try to be fair and helpful when I comment on others’ writing. I don’t know how successful I am in that. I’ve taken a winter writing class for several years, and other participants tell me that they appreciate and have learned from my comments.

    I have received negative comments about my writing. I’ve gotten over feeling I’m being attacked. Some of these comments lead to improvements, and even if I don’t change the text, they give me something to think about. All for the better.

    I’m reminded of the undergraduate creative writing class I took five decades ago. We arranged our desks in a circle and read our stuff, and following the instructor’s lead we praised one another’s efforts to the skies. Then we got sick of that, and decided to try honesty. The next young woman who read her piece was destroyed by our honesty. Her writing wasn’t very good, and we tried to be kind, but she needed the effusive praise that she had heard in earlier class sessions, and it wasn’t there. I don’t think she spoke again for the rest of the term. The instructor read a lengthy “anonymous” poem, and not knowing the author, we decided it was crap, and we said so. I looked over at the instructor and could tell that he had written it himself. What could he do? We had abandoned our earlier toxic positivity, and we felt better for it, but he was mad.

    My old writing group has dissolved. It was shrinking for years, and then it was done in by the pandemic. Next month I have an interview to join another writing group in a neighboring town. I’ve heard good things about them, I know a couple of the members, and if they let me in, I hope they will be fair and helpful.

    Liked by 7 people

    • Ack!
      “The next young woman who read her piece was destroyed by our honesty.”

      But it does beg the question. Does writing well help a writer’s self-confidence or does self-confidence help a writer write well? I know the practical answer is “both” but I don’t think attempting to write well is a good way to build self-confidence.

      Liked by 4 people

      • Perry Palin says:

        I think “both” is right, but then how do we know that we are writing well? Do we know it because we’ve sold something? Because we won a prize in a writing contest? Because someone who should know these things tells us we are writing well? Because readers tell us they like our stories?

        “I (also) don’t believe that attempting to write well is a good way to build self-confidence.” I believe self confidence comes from setting and reaching goals, and from the responses of editors, publishers, readers.

        I wrote about my dance with cancer. My primary care physician wanted to see it. He wrote that the images I used to represent my internal struggle were telling and they worked. Self confidence gets a bit of a boost.

        Liked by 4 people

  2. Creative writing appeals because, to me, it is an individualistic endeavor. It’s no doubt sheer ignorance on my part, but I’ve never wanted to be in a creative writing class or group. I figure it’d be hard to find your own voice above the din of others advising you. I don’t need grammar lessons and story craft advice can be selectively learned -meaning I want to know my choices and then decide what advice, if any, suits me. Ignorance is where I want to start to create a new story.
    After the first draft, others’ opinions do help me tweak my story into what I have in mind. Useful criticism is just me learning that I failed to communicate what I intended.

    Liked by 7 people

  3. mimispeike says:

    I’m working on a response. Here’s a quick take:

    Criticism is not easy for me to give, at any time.

    In a shortie, I admire language; that’s what wows me. Characterization of any depth is difficult to achieve in a few paragraphs, aside from a self-contained scene, and that means in-depth dialogue. It’s characterization that draws me it, and that takes time to build.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. I’ve noticed that in our new Showcase the feedback is pretty much all positive. I feel like we don’t yet have permission to critique each other. But these are special kinds of pieces. Written quickly to a prompt, little time to reflect and polish. So maybe deep critiques aren’t in order. I’ve never been good at writing to prompts, so this is an interesting experiment for me.
    I have a critique group that I use for my novels. We give each other pointed critiques, and it’s generally well-taken. I review the written critiques on the pieces I submit and decide whether I’m going to accommodate them in my edits. Usually they are worthwhile.
    On another writers’ forum, we’re told to do positive-negative-positive. That usually works, but there was one woman I was assigned to, and I thought, “This is terrible writing.” Typos, tenses wrong, words misused, tell not show, boring clichéd characters, implausible fantasy situations. I just couldn’t say anything good about her.
    And the worst thing? She loved my work, and praised it effusively.

    Liked by 6 people

    • mimispeike says:

      “I’ve noticed that in our new Showcase the feedback is pretty much all positive.”

      Mike, you’ve said what I didn’t dare to say. I think we’re all writing from a sense of community, and criticism feels out of place. All the pieces are well written, and the ones that lose me are in the Sci-Fi genre, not my thing. This is a fun exercise. Maybe we should leave it at that.

      At this point, I expect to hear: Christ! Can’t you write about anything but that damn mouse? Good news, folks. I have a spider coming your way.

      I’m working on a post: My Life of (C)rhyme. It deals with versification in general and my struggles with Miss Spider in particular.

      FYI: By word count, I’ve written far more prose than verse. But by number of projects, eighty percent of everything I’ve got is verse.

      Liked by 3 people

      • Mimi: “the one in the sci-fi genre” is . . . farce! (BTW: It’s okay to say “Carl’s stuff.” Heh!) The same thing you write. The whole point of that over-the-top nonsense is to push language and meaning to the breaking point. You’re supposed to feel bewildered and befuddled–even as you giggle–by the rush of absurdist images and language. Either you get it or you don’t. (And if you don’t, that’s perfectly okay! Humor is a very idiosyncratic thing.) But even in such Mad-magazine-like pieces of outrageous humor I am holding up a mirror to our society and endeavoring to say something about authoritarianism, unrestrained militarism, cultural chauvinism, lick-spittle toadyism, the tensions between church and state, the crime of genocide and the numbing cycle of violence that constitutes atrocity and reprisal. The aggregate totality of the aforementioned terms and cultural practices sum to a world and world-view that strike me as soul-crushing, murderous, ID-driven, infantile. In a word: farce.

        Liked by 3 people

    • Speaking only for myself: I say what I mean and mean what I say, Mike. If I have a neutral response to a piece of writing or feel something went over my head I state that as well. The truth is, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the high level of excellence and craftsmanship shown in many of these pieces. Are these little gems timeless works of literature? Of course not! They’re writing exercises–quick doses of (as Sue has stated) “show-offy” scritch-scribbling. (Which might, however, prompt more serious, in-depth work by the posting writer later. . . .)

      Liked by 3 people

    • victoracquista says:

      I was in a critique group where members seemed unwilling to provide negative criticism. I left that group. There is a way to offer constructive negative criticism in a way that is not antagonistic or off-putting. It is hard to have the reader’s perspective on your writing. Positive or negative, truth, honesty, and candor are most welcome.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Exactly, Mimi.
    “…we’re all writing from a sense of community, and criticism feels out of place.”

    “All the pieces are well written….”

    So, if we don’t feel comfortable criticizing well written pieces, maybe we could offer suggestions we think might develop a piece for publication?

    For example,
    I enjoyed the pace, the imagery and the characters of Mike Van Horn’s “Story of Life.” I’d like to see it developed with more world building and a fuller treatment of the philosophy.

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I believe the best critical help I can offer an author is to communicate honestly, but kindly, how I understood their writing and how it affected me, how it might have confused me, or what else I would like to have seen within it. I have the right to suggest what doesn’t work for me, but not the right to tell the author exactly how to “fix” it. At the same time, I believe it’s important to point out what I like about what they’ve written.

    To spare an author, or myself, embarrassment, I believe what I consider to be negative criticism should be privately delivered.

    Basically, I like to provide the kind of critiques I would most appreciate receiving.

    Liked by 4 people

    • mimispeike says:

      I honestly don’t care what kind of criticism I get. I find something useful in every one of them. After I get past my (usually brief) depression.

      Positive comments feel good, but they don’t teach me much. Negatives do.

      Liked by 4 people

  7. I’m with you, Mimi. I’m open to any criticism because if I knew what criticism I needed, I wouldn’t need it. It’s the surprising criticism that teaches me something that I would not have thought of on my own.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. mimispeike says:

    I hope everyone is having a lovely Thanksgiving. I am, for sure. We’re eating all fish today, better than turkey, and a fraction of the work.

    Our kitchen spider is safe in the jar I usually keep the bottle of red wine in so it doesn’t leave a ring on my counter. She’s in there with a dozen ant carcasses, and a few still squirming. She’s had a lovely Thanksgiving dinner. My cat Pip, a maniac for shrimp, has eaten four jumbo shrimp. That has gotten her off our backs, so we can eat our own shrimp in peace.

    Later we have grilled salmon, my husband’s specialty. My contribution to the cookery, I will make an apple pie. Me and apple pie, I have a story to tell about that.

    One Easter, my boyfriend and I went to dinner with his family. I made an apple pie. Dessert came round, we started eating my pie. Vic’s brother in law took a bite and said, “this is really interesting.” Others tasted it. “What’s in this?” Rich narrowed it down. “It tastes like chili.” I had reached for the cinnamon and grabbed the cumin by mistake. I was put on a short leash for culinary contributions after that. One Christmas, I was instructed to bring sherbet. They assumed I would buy it. I made it from scratch. I believe it finally solidified the next day.

    Eberhard’s upstairs, taking a nap. I’m looking for something I can repurpose for my next Showcase entry. I’ve read through books two and three of Sly, found some promising stuff. I haven’t looked at them for six-seven years. I am thrilled to be able to say that both books are holding up wonderfully well. The bones of the plot are in great shape. It needs more dialogue plugged in, is about all.

    Liked by 2 people

      • mimispeike says:

        Thanks, GD. You see, I had time to post here, and create my Showcase entry, and write my (C)rhyme piece, and finish my Rabbit Hole V submission, because I made no turkey and all the trimmings. I have definitely put my time and energy to better use. Eberhard and I and three cats and one tiny spider all had a lovely Thanksgiving dinner. The one thing I didn’t get done: I have yet to make that apple pie. Maybe today.

        I have my to-do list cleared. I can get back on my paper doll. When I get book one (running twenty-five+ pages) all laid out, I am going to mail you the complete set. (That will be twelve 11×17 pages.) I’m up to page nine now.

        I’ll package it flat, not in a tube. (Hint: fit for framing.)

        Liked by 2 people

  9. Good discussion here about the comments on the Show Case pieces. Thanks for bringing that up, Mike. It’s the main reason why I’ve not yet commented myself – I simply don’t know what to say. Perhaps it’s the result of responding to so many anthology stories over the years – it’s either full-blown edit mode or nothing. And I agree with Sue that a serious critique is best reserved for the author alone. I know critiques were public on Book Country, and no doubt are on other sites, but ours isn’t set up that way. Which isn’t to say I don’t enjoy reading the comments as much as I enjoy the texts themselves. Whatever people feel comfortable with – that’s fine by me.


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