Review: The Art of Criticism

Thursday, February 1, 2018
Christine Sun

I am very grateful for the Women Writers of Colour Bursary provided by Writers Victoria, which enabled me to attend The Art of Criticism: Giving and Receiving Feedback workshop hosted by YA novelist, professional editor and manuscript assessor Shivaun Plozza in January.

I attended this workshop as a book reviewer, hoping to further develop my critical approach. As stated in my application: 'I look forward to having an opportunity to learn how to give constructive criticism and to interpret/evaluate feedback from others.' Well, I appeared to be the odd one out, for the other five participants at the workshop are emerging authors yearning for recognition and connection. As Shivaun expertly picked their writings apart, their reactions taught me a great deal.

Aspiring/emerging authors are some of the bravest people we can ever meet. They approach their craft with trepidation, yet their quivering hearts never concede defeat. It is such courage and optimism that earns them respect, and their work needs to be handled with care. The job of a professional editor or manuscript assessor is to help authors polish their skills. The task of a reviewer, I propose, is to keep authors company so they never feel alone.

Shivaun taught us that all written communications strive to match 'author intention' with 'reader interpretation'. In her words: 'When these two don’t correlate, a story is unsuccessful.' More importantly:

'Feedback helps you ensure your reader interprets a story as you intend them to.'

Shivaun explained why authors need feedback and how they can make use of it effectively. When seeking feedback, it is crucial that authors know what they want and who to approach for the sort of advice they need. Particularly when receiving feedback from multiple sources, authors need to patiently sift through a diversity of views and search for that consensus that best tackles the problem. Instead of humbly accepting all criticism, authors are advised to ask questions and explore possible ways to improve their work.

Shivaun further explained how to give feedback. I find her instructions to be tremendously valuable not only to literary critics and book reviewers but also to authors themselves. Indeed, learning how to give feedback helps authors understand how to seek and receive it.

The most valuable lesson I learned from the workshop is to take note of that initial emotional response. How do you feel when you first finish reading a piece of writing? Ask yourself this, before any intellectual and coherent attempt to find out why you have such a response. I clearly remember my own response to a piece of writing that Shivaun picked from Wattpad for us to read. I said something like: 'I think the author tried to squeeze too much information into a very small space …' But Shivaun interrupted me with this question: 'I want to know what you feel. Then you can tell me how or why you think you are feeling this way.'

It is only then that I realised how critical an eye I have been having when I read. Here are some of the notes I took there and then:

'First emotional response is important because you need to read it as a reader. You need to let the author know that, i.e. how you respond emotionally. Then you can talk about why things didn’t work out and how they might possibly be fixed. Whether the author chooses to fix it and in the way you suggest is completely up to them. But you need to let them know the kind of emotional response their work elicits from you.

Is it possible that after reading, reviewing and publishing so many books (see my note below) I have lost that precious initial emotional touch? I certainly read more leisurely and without a critical/professional eye when reading purely as a reader.

This is an important point. i.e. Keep the heart of a reader first, then move on as a reviewer. Also, you cannot assume the author’s intention to be this or that. You cannot possibly know the circumstances in which the writing is done.'

After this precious lesson, Shivaun encouraged us to critique each other’s work during the second half of the workshop. Again I was the odd one out, for I supplied one of my book reviews, unlike the other participants who showcased their literary writings. Still, I am very grateful for this opportunity to receive feedback from others, all of whom have their unique observations and suggestions. I am also happy to know that my point of view is special and worthy in its own way. More importantly, with much practice, I can learn to provide better feedback to fellow authors, readers and reviewers. It is just as Shivaun said: 'Remember that your goal is to help the writer improve what they can, not to determine the value of the piece.'

I strongly recommend Shivaun Plozza’s workshop The Art of Criticism: Giving and Receiving Feedback at Writers Victoria. If you can, please try to join at least one writers group and attend writing-related workshops and/or seminars. It is more about getting in touch with other literary experiences and viewpoints, so you can remain connected and sensing the 'pulse' of the community out there, than actually learning to master something dramatic that can instantly land you on a publishing deal. The days of aspiring/emerging authors locking themselves up in the ivory tower are definitely over. We as authors, readers and reviewers all need to get a life in order to advance our own work.

Special thanks to fellow workshop participant Michael Earp (@littleelfman) who shared with us this quote from Neil Gaiman: 'Remember: When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.'


Note: At work, I am a publisher of Chinese digital and print books. I help emerging and established English-language authors, literary agents and publishers to translate, publish and promote their titles to the Chinese World, while assisting Chinese-language authors to promote their writings to the English World.


About Christine Sun

Born in Taiwan and now based in Melbourne, Christine Yunn-Yu Sun is a bilingual writer, translator, reader, reviewer and independent scholar. Her book reviews, essays and other creative writings have appeared in the 'Australian Poetry Journal', 'Westerly', 'Liminal', 'The Victorian Writer', 'Overland', 'The Good Weekend', 'International Journal of People-Oriented Programming' and 'American Journal of Chinese Studies'. Her English re-writing of four Chinese classic novels — 'Journey to the West', 'The Three Kingdoms', 'The Water Margin' and 'Dream of the Red Chamber' — were published for young readers by Real Reads in the United Kingdom.


This piece was originally published on the blog


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