Critical Barbs - 1

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What happens when the criticism cuts deep

Back in November, I wrote a blog entry about the state of critical commentary at The Herald.

It resulted in a lot of discussion in the comments section, and went a little off track in places. But it was clearly a topic that touched a nerve with a lot of people, including the person I wrote about, who promptly removed me from his Facebook friend list.

I knew this writer would be unhappy about the criticism. Most of us are sensitive about such things. But I didnt expect a complete cessation of what was, before that, a good relationship.

And I do know how it feels to be criticized. Lord knows, I received a great deal of nasty mail when I worked as an entertainment writer and reviewer not to mention the digs I get in the comments section to this blog. But all that is par for the course. I expect people to disagree, and to do so vigorously.

There was one occasion, however, when the criticism hurt. I will relate that story and how I handled the situation.

During the early Nineties, when I worked as an entertainment reporter with The Sunday Express, I decided to do an interview with a respected local media celebrity.

That persons media relations were being managed at the time by a journalist, so I called her with the request. She listened, chewed for a moment on what I had to say, then turned me down flat.

Your writing is okay, she said, but I dont really like your research. You typically do one interview per story.

We think we know how wed react in such moments like telling the person where to get off, and with how much force they should do so but the truth is, I was speechless. I muttered something like, Well, Im not sure I agree with that, but thanks anyway.

I was stung by the criticism. When Joe Blow says youre full of crap, thats no problem. I can deal. But when a respected senior journalist declines an interview request because your work is not up to par that hurts.

My first reaction was a reasonable one: I carefully weighed the merit of her accusation. Was she right?

At the time, I was the oldest, most experienced reporter on staff (we had a pretty young crew). I composed my stories with considerable care, and knew there wasnt an issue with my writing skills.

I contemplated what she said about one-interview stories. I looked through back issues, at old bylines, and took stock of the situation. For most, if not all, of the longer stories I spoke with two or more people. However, many of the shorter pieces were based on single interviews.

Overall, I could easily have rationalized her complaint as excessive, unreasonable, even mean-spirited, and carried on as usual.

But I decided not to do that. Truth is, I was rattled by the criticism. It shook the foundations of my own self-esteem as a writer. I determined that this was never going to happen again. From that point on, I thought carefully about who and how many people I should talk to for every story I wrote.

Most of the time, I recorded more interviews than I needed. And that was fine; too much was better than not enough.

And the result was articles that, in my humble opinion, have stood the test of time and now take an important pace in the cultural record of this province; such as these profiles of John Perlin and Peter Bell. Follow the Peter Bell link, if you would like to read about this provinces most important and fearless critic.

My point, in case it is not clear, is that we can react to criticism in one of two ways. We can put our hands over our ears and make it go away. Or we can suck it up, reject what is wrong or mean-spirited in the criticism and do what we can to address what is accurate.

Speaking of fearless critics, in part two of this series I will profile another critic who wasnt afraid to ruffle a feather or two.

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  • Megan
    July 27, 2010 - 14:54

    Hear, hear!