I’m still working on the next part of the Stockholm Syndrome series, but I’ve had something of a rough week and that series is too important to me to do half assed. So here are some rambling thoughts on one of my favorite issues.
Recently I was reading a very vitriolic criticism of a popular author, who I personally like. Now, I’m not writing this to defend him. In fact, I will not name him, because I don’t want to distract myself from the point that I am about to make. I’m mentioning this because the criticisms were mostly of the fact that his female characters suffered. The assumption was that if they suffered, it was because he was misogynist. I couldn’t agree with that. If a trope such as Women in Refrigerators had been in effect, or they had suffered primarily so a man could rescue them, I would see the critic’s point, but neither applied. In fact, one of the things I appreciate about the writer is how his female characters usually suffer as part of an arc where they take action to regain their own agency.
The critic didn’t seem to realize that part of good characterization is letting your characters suffer. Suffering drives character arcs. It can add depth and reader sympathy. In fact, if I don’t make my characters suffer, its a good sign that I’m not actually very invested in them.
This lead me to thinking about an issue that I think is common to writers who want to do a better job writing diversity, or even addressing social issues in any form. On the one hand, you want to listen to criticism in order to do this properly. There are actions that seem like good ideas until you look closely at them (see the entire Magical Negro trope). Often pride will blind writers from taking an honest look at their work.
On the other hand, sometimes the critics haven’t thought hard enough about their own criticisms. I remember a conversation I had with my ex when he flat out admitted that for him, finding the problematic element of a story and ranting about it on Tumblr was a game for him. It was about being able to hold that problematic element over his head and declare that he had won, which made me very angry. Criticism shouldn’t be about an ego trip. It should be productive and of benefit to both fans and writers.
So how do you know whether you need to listen to a criticism or not? How do you know whether you need to call someone out on a something or not? I’ve thought about this issue for a long time, and the only conclusion that I’ve come to is that you can’t. Not with absolute certainty. You might ignore somebody who has a good point. You might bend over backwards to change for somebody who is wrong. I myself could be completely wrong in my criticism of that critic’s criticism. I am not, last I checked, infallible.
There are a few things I think can be done to improve your chances of being productive. First, you can check your ego. Don’t write for praise, don’t tear somebody else down to elevate your own standing, and don’t let yourself forget that you are a constant work in progress. If you can’t separate your writing from yourself, it increases the odds that you will either ignore criticism because it is uncomfortable, or accept it too readily because you want everyone’s pat on the back. Second, you can make it a point to expose yourself to multiple points of view, even ones you think you already disagree with. If you get comfortable listening to people with wildly different perspectives, you can make yourself less likely to reject a valid point just because it comes from a field you don’t like, or accept a poor one just because it comes from someone you like to think of as “one of my people.” Third, you can study critical thinking in general. Take a class, read a book on logic and rhetoric, practice taking off your emotional glasses and just thinking objectively.
If I may be tautological, I think the best you can do is to do your best. Odds are, you will not create the unimpeachable work, free of problematic tropes and destined to end racism, sexism and all the isms. As my boyfriend likes to say, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Write what’s in your heart, think long and hard about whether what you’re saying is really what you want to say, and be ready for the possibility that someday you will look back, smack your forehead and say “what was I thinking?” It happens to everybody.