It is a well-documented fact that writers can be dismissive, hypercritical, and downright insulting when it comes to the work of their peers and predecessors. Juvenal, Samuel Johnson, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Sayers and her nemesis Edmund Wilson, Dorothy Parker, John Logan…the list is long and spans centuries. Some of the critiques are valid, in their way; many are wickedly funny, which doesn’t remedy the unkindness of the barbs. Most writers who have been writing and presenting or publishing their work for awhile will have encountered some less-than-generous “feedback” from other writers. Given human nature, such responses are probably inevitable.
In the mediated circle of the voluntary critique group such as may be found among MFA programs or community writers’ groups, the group or mentor often establishes protocols for sharing work–methods of responding to creative efforts that avoid too-harsh criticism, ad hominem attacks, or dismissive/discouraging comments. Once your writing is out in the world in whatever public form (print, slam performance, live reading, video, online, etc), however, the best advice is sometimes “don’t read the comments.”
Many agendas may drive the urge to bash particular writers or their works, among these envy, attention, pride, status, self-preservation, righteous indignation, or a sense that one needs to scramble to make space for oneself in an already small environment (“the literary world”). Even, dare I say, ignorance. I could speculate on reasons for unkindness until the proverbial cows come dawdling home, but I suppose it can be attributed to a kind of social Darwinism. People can be mean-spirited when threatened. Though exactly how the writing of poetry poses a threat to other poets remains a mystery to me.
Maybe I am a Pollyanna (entirely possible), but although I can recall some incidents and critiques that have stung me, there have been far more instances of generosity from fellow writers. While contemplating writing this post I sat back and decided to count how many fellow writers have extended courtesy, respect, useful advice, helpful criticism, networking and publication leads, encouragement, and the sense that I’ve “been seen”–acknowledgment as a writer–and I found the list was long. I considered listing names, but there are so many…and I was afraid I’d inadvertently overlook someone. I consider this an excellent “problem” to have.
Granted, some stings have been…memorable. However, I’ve been writing and publishing poetry and related prose since the early 1980s, so there have been many years during which I’ve had the joy of connecting with other writers in generous ways. Writing is both a large community and a small one, depending upon where I am in my own life: local at times, semi-isolated other times, and then–thanks to social media platforms, with which I have love/hate relationships–national and international!
As I get ready to pull back a bit from my work in the realm of higher education, I hope that the lessons I have learned about being generous to my students, gently encouraging while pointing out areas to keep working on, will stay with me. My feeling about poetry is that there’s certainly room for more of it in a world which can be harsh, and that acknowledging other humans’ urge to express their awe, fear, grief, passion, love, anger, and perspective won’t actually harm many of us.
Thus, to all of the fellow writers and artists living and dead who have been generous to me: Bounteous gratitude. I’ll keep trying to pay it forward.
The promise of new work from you is a good start on paying it forward. But, yes, sadly there are those so full of themselves they can only denigrate the work of others whose work they deem inferior to their own. I recall being told by a professor (who later served as Poet Laureate) that if I couldn’t at least get closer to Milton or Shakespeare I ought to try more mundane writing such as lawyers generate. Thankfully I only half took him to heart.
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I remembered this story of yours (and–ahem–who that professor was). It’s one of the warnings-type discouragements I try not to replicate when I am giving feedback to writers at any stage in their so-called careers. 🙂
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