Thursday, February 28, 2008

What's Wrong with this Critique

Note: A version of this post appeared way back at the beginning of this blog, but since there were no comments made on that original post, and since most people reading this blog now didn’t even know it existed then, and since I consider it an important point, I’m going to rerun the basics with some added commentary.

Although I certainly recommend Storyteller, by Kate Wilhelm, there was one place where I strongly disagreed with her. She mentioned a male writer at Clarion who turned in a 10,000 word story about a hero and his battles. She then said: "The students loved it, called it exciting, and we said no. It was static. Nothing happened." She went on to explain that it was static because: "Something had to change, either in the character, in the situation, or in the reader." She is, of course, wrong! And I wonder how many fine reads have been nipped in the bud by such awful criticism.

I don't mean to downplay a character's evolution as a person. I love it when that happens. But what is wrong with a story that is just an exciting read? Edgar Rice Burroughs didn't have a lot of character development in his John Carter of Mars books but I certainly devoured them. I still remember them far more fondly than some stuff I've read where the character "develops."

In my opinion, Wilhelm is wrong for many reasons. 1) She admits that the students loved the story and found it exciting. In other words, the "readers" liked it and she's correcting them. How can a reader be wrong about what they like? 2) Male readers, in particular, enjoy action, and what's wrong with a work that appeals primarily to males? It used to be that most books were written for males. Now it seems that most books are written for women. I don't think either extreme is desirable. I certainly enjoy many books that my female friends like, and I enjoy some they don't. That fact doesn't bother me at all. 3) Relating to the story in question, there actually is change if Wilhelm thinks about it, change in the readers. If they experience a lifting of mood, an escape for a few minutes from their worries and cares, then they have been changed. Maybe they haven't had an epiphany, but how often do those come around anyway?

Books and stories touch us as readers for different reasons. I treasure Peter Matthiessen's Snow Leopard because it took me on a spiritual journey with its transcendent prose. I loved Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men because of the relationship between the characters and how they changed. I've reread Louis L'Amour's To Tame a Land four times because it brims with action and excitement. I read the essays of Lewis Thomas and Loren Eiseley because they make science rich with mystery and possibility. Together they all changed me.

Not every writer has the same goal. Not every piece of writing has to achieve the same things. Change for change sake is, in my opinion, the biggest “bill of goods” that is sold to would-be writers. Character change is a writing “technique,” not a writing rule. It’s a good technique, one that enriches many stories, but there may be times when it is inappropriate. Consider: An author has a worldview that humans are largely incapable of personal change and she writes a story where characters go through relationship hell and end up getting right back into exactly the same kind of relationship next time. According to Kate Wilhelm, such a story would be static and, therefore, a bad story. Unfortunately for the critic, the story would also reflect the basic truth of many lives. Are stories, then, not to strive to tell the truth? To me, telling the truth is a rule of writing, not a technique. It trumps change for change sake.

What do you think?


Josephine Damian said...

Charles: A judge in a short story contest told me she liked a certain story because it had a character arc - that was what she considered good storytelling.

Other published stories, and some big contest winners are "slice of life" stories - I think of them as Seinfeld tales cause not a whole lot happens.

I think you need to consider the market of short story mags and submit the type they usually publish. Also look at the big contest (Lorian Hemingway, Writers Digest) winners and see what type of stories were winners - then you'll have your answer as to the odds of success.

By all means, write the type of story you like, but realize that tastes are different - not better - just different.

Shauna Roberts said...

When I read that part of Wilhelm's book, it bothered me, but I didn't understand why until your post. If readers enjoy a story, then it's successful by definition—If a story doesn't engage readers in some way, what's the point?

That said, I usually don't care for stories that are just a slice of someone's life or a character study. I don't get some of Eudora Welty's stories for that reason. I keep waiting for the payoff, and there is none. Someone goes somewhere and then goes home and then . . . the story's over.

Travis Erwin said...

Funny you mention Mathiesson and Snow Leopard I reference it in my WIP, and I'm currently reading his Far Tortuga.

As far as your post I agree personally but it has been my experience it has been extremely tough to sale any piece that doesn't have character change.

WH said...

Charles, this is one of the most insightful posts I've ever read. Different stories/novels have different strengths and more importantly, goals. I grew up reading (for some strange reason) Perry Mason mysteries, and it was Mason's creator who challenged me to be a writer. But he had no real character development, just straight-ahead plotting in his mysteries. And I have often said that I find little charactization in Dan Brown's work, but his aim is pacing and action. He doesn't dwell on character nuance, but I like it and accept it for what it is.

If a story works, it works. I get really peeved when I have an agent tell me that the story I've submitted is really interesting--a page turner--but that it lacks this or that. My reaction is "so what?". Page turners sell.

I once had a middle reader accepted by Scholastic, and I thought I'd hit the big time. There was a change in editorial staff, and the new editor killed the project because she said that although the story was beautifully written and held her attention all the way through, she didn't think a minor character had been developed. Huh?!?!

Critiques are all well and good, but even if they come from agents or reviewers, I don't necessarily think they're worth much anymore--pardon me for the heresy, folks. It's as if there's some checklist that one must satisfy.

I think Bradbury had it right all along: put away the rules and then sit down and write. I mean really--some advice becomes absurd, like worrying whether or not "the character arc has succesfully defended the backstory before the denoument is reached."

What if ... "Dear Mr. Hemingway. Lovely story, but use subordination. Your style is far too simple."

Too many how-to books out there. Stephen King got it right in ON WRITING when he said "read a lot and write a lot." Amen. Sorry for the rant.

SQT said...

I think the best stories are the one's that reflect human nature and most people I know don't significantly change over time. So what's wrong with a story that reflects this?

I understand that an editor, who is looking at a story from a critical standpoint, is looking for certain bullet-points along the way. But sometimes (IMHO) it's better to just read piece as a reader and try to see if it entertains. I mean really, what other point is there to writing a story? If I write something, I'd doing it from the standpoint that it's something I'd like to read myself not as critical masterpiece.

Randy Johnson said...

A story is meant to entertain and engage the reader. If you don't have that, you have nothing. Characterization is good, but if the story doesn't move along, the reader will soon lose interest. I'm speaking from my own perspective of course. I, also, devoured Burroughs when I was a young reader. I love action stories. As I grew older, I grew more sophisticated in my reading. But that little boy still lurks inside. I can lose myself in a pure action story, whether it be western, fantasy, horror,SF, or thriller. I am what I am.

Sarai said...

As a person striving to get into the market I have had pitfalls and pot holes marking my way. Many people don't like my stories because they are different. (I won't go into how they are different they just are)
However, I got into this profession wanting to write what I love. And if that is a short story where the character doesn't develop then so be it. I am happy with what I produce and although I would love to sell something I refuse to follow every rule out there.
Instead I read and gather knowledge and then I apply that knowledge to the stories I want to write and if it doesn't fit then I discard that knowledge. After all if I love it and people who read it love it then there is no point in changing it.
One day we all will find that agent or editor that will see it for what it is a gem but for right now we just have to keep writing what we love and hope the people who love it as well can find a way to enjoy it.
Great post!

Lana Gramlich said...

I think you're right (where fiction's concerned.) People read for a variety of reasons & (to some extent,) it's sad that there's this "filter" between the writers & their audience. Imagine if things were published on their merits, alone, rather than their sheer marketability? But I digress...

Charles Gramlich said...

Josephine, yes, exactly.

Shauna, I can only handle slice of life vignette's if they are very short and beautifully written. I do want things to happen, but the degree to which they happen is so varied from one tale to another.

Travis Erwin, agreed on the salability factor, unless it's like a short prose poem vignette of some kind.

Billy, thanks. I agree wholeheartedly. And I think that folks who are in the business of teaching other's how to write should be aware of these points and thoughts.

SQT, agreed. I have a feeling that if you set out to write a masterpiece then you are doomed to failure. Only by writing what is true to you and what is meaningful to you as an author can, in some cases, reach master level.

Randy Johnson, exactly. That's why I'll go back and reread a Louis L'Amour, or a Robert E. Howard or an ERB. All I ask of a writer is that they "move" me.

Sarai, perseverance at that early stage is the toughest thing of all, and many times it is because the "gatekeepers" don't let our stuff through to the readers, who might like it very much if they had a chance.

Lana, that "marketibility" issue is a whole nother post but I better not get started. Btw, did you know your Sweety Q is much higher even than you IQ? My measurements suggest it's in the 250 to 300 range, with 250 being the maximum possible.

Monique said...

This is an excellent post again Charles.

To be a critic is the easiest work in the world. To be a good or excellent critic is the hardest.

We have a saying in Holland which I like very much, 'The best sailors are standing on the beach'.

More often than not I found my scripts returned with, 'an excellent read but not for us'. Uh! They would never ever tell me where I should go to have it developed. And anyway most of them couldn't write one page of intelligent reading.

A story to me is a good story if it grips me. That doesn't mean that a story is a bad story when it doesn't.

We all have (luckily) different tastes.

Miladysa said...

Awesome post.

This brought back memories of school for me. I don't know when I first read a book, I can always remember reading or being read to and yet I spent 98% of the time being bored rigid in English Literature classes.

Give a room full of school children "Lord of the Flies" and it does not take a second to see their eyes glaze over! Many of them will probably never willingly pick up another one!

Give them a good read though, and books will always be a part of their life.

Steve Malley said...

Great post. Thanks for putting this one up again!

AvDB said...

I have to agree; a page turner is a successful story, regardless of the supposed ironclad laws handed down by the literary gods. I'd elaborate my point, but I'd just be reiterating the above comments, which have already been worded well enough. So, I'll just nod along like a bobblehead.

Angie said...

I agree with Ms. Wilhelm, but it sounds like she was interpreting her own rules too narrowly. If her rule is that something has to change "either in the character, in the situation, or in the reader," then action/adventure stories where there's no significant character development but there is something exciting going on would be covered by the second option.

If there's a chase, then someone's being chased for a reason. Whoever's chasing them wants something and whoever's being chased wants something else. Who gets what they want and who doesn't and what's the result?

If there's a battle of some kind, whether it's two combatants or two hundred thousand, then they're fighting over something and by the end of the story I would expect that something would've changed. Which isn't to say that the protag will necessarily have gone through a growth and development experience, but the fight was probably won by one side or the other, at some cost to one or both sides. There'd have been a change of some sort by the end, even if it was only the attackers spending themselves against the greater strength of the attacked, losing, and going home unable to attack again for a while. The change there is, at a minimum, that the people attacked can feel safe for a while, rather than fearing their (now greatly weakened) enemies, and the attackers are now missing half their guys, or at least going home with some bruises and maybe some additional fear of their enemies or some new resentments or something.

I have a hard time imagining an action-adventure story where nothing changed, though, even if it wasn't a story of character and no one made any profound realizations about life, the universe and everything.

If nothing truly happened in the story (slice-of-life, etc.) then the reader should have been expecting or hoping that something would change, and the fact that it didn't will have produced some response in the reader, whether it's a change in their emotions or some issue to think about or a new way of looking at the situation. If the reader just goes "Yeah? So?" then IMO the story is a failure and Ms. Wilhelm's criticism is very valid.

A lot of people are stuck on the Character Story, though, and don't recognize other kinds of plots. It's a fad that's been going on for a while, but it is just a fad and it draws the line with a lot of good stories on the outside.


Rob Windstrel Watson said...

Mmmm! There are so many erudite comments here that I hardly dare to add my 2p worth.

I agree with so much that has been written here both in the insightful main post and in the supplementary comments.

It makes me glad that my chosen route to getting my writing read completely bypasses editors and agents.

Publishing free online has many problems, but it is always the general public that decides whether to bookmark your site and come back to read some more and not just an intermediary who is ultimately guessing at what the public (or publishers) will like.

RRN said...

Geeze Charles....
That was such a good post. You made a brilliant argument here and I think captured the honest essence of what writing is.... Just grabbing readers in whatever fashion and taking them on a trip. I am not a fan of do's and don'ts or doing things "the way they should be done".

In the end...
All the critics can walk off a bridge for better or worse.
If something someone has written is deemed utter garbage...But just one person takes something from it , learns from it , or just loves it.... Then how could it ever be wrong ?

Thanks for posting this. It was yet another great fountain of knowledge from quite a wise man.

Ello - Ellen Oh said...

Charles, I agree with you and I also agree with Billy that there are far too many books on how to write and people are analyzing good stories to death. A story is good if the readers are engaged, period. She has forgotten the whole pleasure behind reading principle!

Travis Cody said...

Maybe I'm missing the point, but I find it odd that a story with action can be considered static. The character development may be static, but if there is action the story itself can't be considered static because action is by definition dynamic.

As to your point, I agree that a story shouldn't be dismissed if it pleases the reader. We don't always want some literary masterpiece. Sometimes we just want a good mystery, or a good western, or a good adventure.

steve on the slow train said...

Charles--One reason I enjoy reading your blog is that it makes me think. I've always gone along with the character change thing, but I realize that some of the fiction I enjoy the most has little or no character development. Rex Stout, for instance. Nero Wolfe isn't much different in 1973 than he is in 1929. But I read and reread the Nero Wolfe stories and usually learn something each time. You're right. You can have an excellent work of fiction with little or no character development.

Lana Gramlich said...

Charles; No, you...

Lisa said...

OK first -- you two are just the cutest couple ever :)

At this risk of having nothing of substance to add, I'll blabber away anyway. Something Therese Fowler once said when I was worried about tackling a stack of excerpts to critique was something along the line of -- does the story accomplish what it sets out to -- and keeping that in mind each time I critique work has helped me enormously, especially when I've had to critique work I wouldn't normally choose to read, but that is perfectly fine work. Everyone has his likes and dislikes. I have to confess a minority preference for slow reads, heavy character studies and interior landscapes, which most people don't like to read. I just enjoy them and I always have. I respect all genres done well, even though there are certain books and movies that I cannot even force myself to get through even when I want to, I make no critical judgment on their quality -- they're just not my thing. I'm afraid fast paced, action packed stories are the ones that give me the most trouble, UNLESS the characters are exceptionally interesting and do have some transformation or internal struggle occurring that's not formulaic and predictable. I nearly always fall asleep during action movies no matter how hard I try not to. The heavier the action, the more my eyes glaze over. I don't know why it is, it's just personal taste and not a statement or proclamation about the "worth" of the work. Fiction is not a one size fits all proposition and what readers like and demand doesn't necessarily translate well into what garners critical acclaim -- BUT it's because most critics tend to have emerged from literary scholarship and they have a very narrow focus. I remain curious as to why criticism hasn't branched out and why critics who love the more commercially popular forms of fiction haven't emerged. It's a little perplexing to me why genres that outsell all others don't seem to have a critical voice at all. I guess I've veered off topic a bit, so I apologize for that!

Randy Johnson said...

Every reader brings something different to the table. We all have our likes and dislikes. Some overlap is there, but not always. As I've said in other comments, no one has ever written a story that everyone likes. I remember a comment Spider Robinson made a few years ago in a book review column. It seems a reader was incensed that everything Spider thought was good, he didn't. And vice versa. Spider said, "No problem." He was the perfect reviewer for the man. "Just buy everything I hate."

Bernita said...

Charles, I so agree.
That advice smacks of form over content.
In many stories a character is revealed not necessarily "changed" or "developed."

Erik Donald France said...

Right on. Damn the torpedoes.

This is seamless -- can't tell where the original post ended or where the additional material was added.

Charles Gramlich said...

Monique, yes, that's my thinking. There isn't just "one" way to write a good story. The only rule I can see is to tell the truth, the emotional and metaphorical truth.

Miladysa, you've hit on one of my serious pet peeves. I told my High school english teacher that if I hadn't already been a reader that English class would have beat it out of me. Let them learn to read and enjoy first, then get them into the deeper stuff.

Steve Malley, no problem. I had a few thoughts to add.

Avery, exactly, there's no easy way to predict what will capture a reader's imagination.

Angie, I think you're right. Things did change and Ms. Wilhelm was interpreting things too narrowly. She was probably trying to make a point but it backfired for me.

Rob Hopcott, thanks for stopping by. I visited a few of your many blogs last night. There are advantages and disadvantages to going either the traditional or the nontraditional route. Worth a post itself.

rrn, I don't mind when folks suggest guidelines for things, but when they become rigid and dogmatic they just get in the way.

Ello, I agree. I may start out reading a story/book and be analyzing it, but if it is good I'm soon lost in the tale and don't even notice the "rules"

Travis, exactly. Action is change, although it doesn't necessarily have to lead to character change.

Steve, yes, and such stories, like the Nero Wolfe tales for you and the ERB tales for me, do provide us with something important that helps "us" change, even if the characters don't "discover" themselves.

Lana, *just points in her direction.*

Lisa, that's a good point. Possibly it's because a good "character" story almost demands concentration and analysis to enjoy it, while an "action romp" doesn't require that much effort. The folks who enjoy the former are naturally going to analyze, while fans of the latter are just going to be satisfied or not satisfied on a gut level. I've got to give this more thought. Great point.

Randy Johnson, LOL on the comment by Spider. There used to be a movie reviewer in New Orleans that I looked at that way. Whatever he panned I just knew immediately that I would enjoy it. And true, no story is liked by everyone.

Bernita, excellent point. I do very much like when the character is "revealed." Change is of lesser importance to me.

Erik, there are some new elements throughout, but most of the new material is in the last two paragraphs.

Chris Eldin said...

So many excellent points, Charles. I agree--this is such a thought-provoking post.
Does some of this discussion have to do with character-driven versus plot-driven stories? I still grapple with what that means, exactly.
And I liked what Bernita said about characters being revealed.

And yes, a jolly-good adventure is sometimes just what the readers want.

Michelle's Spell said...


I would agree with you here. Nothing wrong with action, a good read, and something that's fun. I find in workshops that sometimes students don't like something if it doesn't seem complicated and hard. What I tell them is that easy reading is very difficult to write and that they are mistaking shitty storytelling for "depth." I also am very skeptical about the whole "have to change" thing. How much in life do we change? Not much and not fast so far as I can tell.

Charles Gramlich said...

Christine Eldin, thanks. I do believe there is some plot versus character driven issues here. Plot driven stories are generally considered weaker but I don't necessarily agree with that, although it is characters that certainly attract me to most of what I read.

Michelle, I was actually thinking of some of your stuff when I made the comment about change. You seem to capture the fact that many people do not change, that their very unchangingness is part of their lives and leads them to repeat past patterns. I do think people change only slowly under most circumstances.

ivan said...

All the more embarrasing when you have a go-ahead on a story, as I once did for the Audubon Society.

I had four characters in a plastic teepee. They were fishermen
and one was cuckolded by his wife. The other two were just fishing. The fourth guy was a Miq-Maq Indian who had built the teepee for the white guys to stay in.

Outside, every morning, at five a.m, a beaver would form this beautiful vee in the lake.

I was still market-ignorant in those days and tried to fashion a story about the four men--character development and all that.

But after I got stuck on the story, my uncle, who worked for Audubon said, "Screw the men. Write about the beaver."
In fact, he beat me to it and wrote his own story, "Shaprtooth--The Year of the Beaver."

Uncle David Allenby Smith didn't quite
tell me to "put some time in as a pro" but after his performance and sale of what turned out to be a successful book, read by every young student in Ontario, I did feel very young and inexperienced.

I was not only mixing my markets--Audubon was definitely about animals--I couldn't even write the story.
Slapped me on the side of my head and said, "On your fisherman story:
You haven't even scratched the surface yet."

Once you have developed your characters, it seem--that's when you have scratched the surface.

I never finished that story, went on to writing autobiographical material, using myself as grist for my own mill, and whaddoya know!
Major personal essay accepted by Canada's biggest newspaper.
Too bad Uncle Dave wasn't alive to see my final breakthrough, not as a novelist of film script writer, but as an essayist, probably my true calling.

writtenwyrdd said...

Man, my eyes are rolling at this one. I'm totally with you, Charles. If the readers like it, then the story is working. *eye roll* Lemme see, there was action in the story. Something got started, that conflict must have had something occur, even if it wasn't finished yet. Doesn't that also fit the definition of change? Maybe it's just me, but one of the reasons I resist the validation of actually going for that MA in fiction is because of such blanket attitudes and opinions. (The validation would be nice, though, lol.) I think Josie d's "slice of life" is the correct description for many wonderful action stories.

Rachel V. Olivier said...

I am more apt to agree with you, Charles. I think that there is currently a HUGE disconnect between readers and critics or even movie viewers and critics. And I think that disconnect sometimes continues into other areas of publishing and producing, etc. If the readers and/or viewers enjoy it, then clearly that particular story did something right. It may not be the Grade A story that the critic wants it to be, but if it pleased the readers and the viewers then it did its job. I do think that the critics, editors, producers, what have you might have good advice to make it better, maybe (?), but who are they to tell the readers they're wrong?