A Time to Listen, and a Time to Ignore: Finding Your Voice in a Sea of Criticism

by Katie Davenport

Ralph Waldo Emerson and I don’t get along.

At least, I’m assuming we wouldn’t have, had we both lived in the same century. His belief in the divinity of man and his failure to account for evil compel me to agree with Herman Melville’s assessment of his philosophy: “God help the poor fellow who squares his life according to this.”[1] And yet, as I read through Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance”, I couldn’t help but ponder over the following passage: “Insist on yourself; never imitate… That which each can do best, none but his Maker can teach him. No man yet knows what it is, nor can, till that person has exhibited it. Where is the master who could have taught Shakespeare? Where is the master who could have instructed Franklin, or Washington, or Bacon, or Newton? Every great man is a unique.”[2] Much as I disagree with Emerson’s views of a personalized, self-orientated theology, I have to acknowledge that in the realms of art, literature, theatre, etc., it’s good advice. When it comes to creativity, those who make a lasting mark are the ones who keep to their own idea of what art be, regardless of what the critics might say.

Before going any further, allow me to clarify to whom this essay is addressed. I suspect there are a fair number of artists who confidently disregard tradition and advice and have no problem with self-reliance. To such people, this article will be of no use; the advice I give is that they take care not to confuse self-reliance with arrogance. Instead, it is intended for writers who love their art but have been discouraged or intimidated by harsh criticism. After all, writing is often personal, and it can be difficult not to take criticism as not take that criticism personally, especially if that criticism turns to outright mockery. What if someone attacks the work over which you have slaved?

Well, someone almost certainly will. To create anything is by nature to expose yourself to criticism. It may seem odd, but for the longest time, I had the idea that there existed an elite group of writers who were never criticized. The great writers of history must have been accepted as wonders from the very beginning of their careers and have since been eternally venerated by all serious students of literature. Thankfully, coming to Hillsdale quickly shattered that illusion. I found that many of the very smart people surrounding me had vastly different opinions about literature than I. I particularly recall a moment of freshman shock when one of my new friends confessed her undying hatred of Jane Eyre. What? No! Not Jane! Surely nobody hated Jane! Oh yes, my friend assured me, someone definitely did. It was a surprising and necessary introduction to the fact that two people with very similar views and love for literature could disagree vastly on the merit of a work, simply on the basis of personal taste.

Writers should be aware of this element of personal taste in criticism. Though you should always evaluate criticism to see if it points to any true stylistic or artistic flaws (as it often does), there are times when you should smile politely and stick to your guns. As mentioned before, even the most brilliant works are going to leave someone unhappy. It is always interesting to read negative reviews of a favorite author’s works; it allows you to see where the critics might have been wrong. Take, for example, the St James’s Gazette, which in 1890 characterized Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray as “a very lame story” that “is too clumsy, too tedious, and…too stupid” to bring any pleasure or moral to its readers and “ought to be chucked into the fire” (216).[3] Likewise, a 1932 review of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World called the book “a lugubrious and heavy-handed piece of propaganda.”[4] Perhaps even more amusing are authors’ reviews of each other. C. S. Lewis and George Orwell each reviewed the other’s work, and both had negative things to say. In Orwell’s 1945 review of That Hideous Strength, he called it “a book worth reading”, but dismissed the supernatural elements in the story as confusing and unnecessary, concluding that “[Lewis] is entitled to his beliefs, but they weaken his story…”[5] Likewise, in Lewis’s 1955 review of Orwell’s work, he praised Animal Farm but criticized 1984 as havingtoo much in it of the author’s own psychology: too much indulgence of what he feels as a man, not pruned or mastered by what he intends to make as an artist.” In particular, Lewis criticized Orwell’s treatment of sex and called the novel’s hero and heroine “such dull, mean little creatures that one might be introduced to them once a week for six months without even remembering them.” [6] When it comes down to it, Lewis and Orwell have different ideas of what makes a book good—and I personally enjoy both novels. Besides, if the whole literary world were Orwell, where would be Lewis? If the whole were Lewis, where would be Wilde?

This element of personal taste may seem obvious when looking back on writers throughout history, but it can be decidedly harder to apply while sitting at your own writing desk. There, the promptings of the muse can easily become mixed up with another voice, one that seeks the approval of others: Should I put that bit of dialogue in—what if someone laughs? I don’t think that phrase sounds quite literary enough—I had better cut it. No, if I want this piece to be taken seriously I should end it differently. Hush those voices. Don’t be cowed into thinking that any one person or group has a monopoly on literature and that all must emulate them. There was a time when the world had never heard of Dante or Chaucer or Hawthorne or Hemingway. Now it has; but there is always room for new voices to be added to that number. Write what you like, not what you think the world or academia will like. If you write self-consciously, you will find anxiety gumming up your prose. Instead, forget the crowds, forget the critics, forget the vain little part of yourself that desires to be profound, and instead chase what you love most about life, words, and characters. That is when you will move from being a mere student of writers to being one of their number.

Katie Davenport is a junior studying English and art

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