Ah, critiques. How problematic they can be. I've talked with a friend at length about how for US, it is hard to even hear the positive comments at first, and I think we're pretty normal. Say 100 positive things about my work, and I'll dwell on the one tiny negative niggle. I often find myself creating a shit sandwich when I have some Very Bad News to deliver to a writer about what I perceive as major problems in a work. I want to in some way take the sting out of it, and also I want to make sure they don't destroy the good things about their work if they decide to take my advice. I guess I go into a critique with an attitude of finding the strengths. When I critique a story or a book, I want to see the story in the writer's head and help them get it on the page. Every story is wonderful inside the author's head. They only fail in translation.
Yeah, as a writer, it is definitely at least as important to me to know what is working as to know what isn't.
I was reading an article not too long ago about the use of the "shit sandwich" model in providing workplace feedback, and the problems it can cause there. First, because everyone is very familiar with the model, and if they realize consciously that it's being employed on them, they'll tend to discount the feedback. Also, the article alleged that it's very much an American (or at least Western) thing, and that non-Americans often interpret it as, "Get wary when an American praises you, because it means they are about to stab you in the back." Made me think twice about how I offer feedback to my colleagues.
I'm a very blunt person! I just say whatever I'm thinking, and people have to deal with it! I shoot straight from the hip! And what I have to say is this: I think that shirt looks great on you.
Seriously, I think there are several cultural things related there. People never go on about how they're blunt/a straight-shooter/etc. when they're going to say something nice. But in some types of professional interaction, people never just go in, say something nice, and stop. "Something nice" is perceived as worthless. Really it isn't. At all.
It was very hard, when I had the best tempura of my life, to convey that message to the waitress to convey to the cook. "How are your meals?" "Really great!" "Good!" I had to stop her. "No, seriously. This is the best tempura I have ever had. Usually people say 'really great' to make you go away because everything is good. This really is really great."
I don't give standing ovations mostly either. And now I am sad because Douglas Wright is locked out of the Minnesota Orchestra, and the other stupid wretches around me give standing ovations so habitually that he will never know that I leapt spontaneously to my feet after his solo in an Aho symphony, and I would give any number of stupid new lobbies to have him keep playing the trombone--which isn't even one of my favorite instruments!--for the orchestra. I don't do that. But formatting problems kept my data from being data, and I believe it was the only standing ovation I've ever given that Minnesota Orchestra without guest performers.
Stop tainting my data sets, people!
I agree about the need to preserve what's working. Oh, how I agree.
. . . however, comma, there actually have been times where my positive comments were motivated less by that concern than by a desire to soften the following blow. I'm thinking specifically of some of the stories my students handed in when I was teaching creative writing, where my actual instinct was "chuck this in the trash because there's nothing worth saving," but it wouldn't actually be productive for me to say that. So I made myself choose just one or two of the shrieking flaws to discuss (since drowning somebody in "you need to fix the characters and the plot and the dialogue and the descriptions and the concept and also your grammar" all at once rarely helps), and also find something vaguely positive to say, just so my message wouldn't be "this sucks and there's nothing worth saving."
I guess you could say the thing I wanted to protect and preserve was the writer's self-esteem. But it really wasn't anything in the text.
Yeah, the times when you're critiquing something that's really not there on any axis are incredibly tough. Because frankly there are things that do not deserve saving. There are times when the most useful answer is, "Go write something else," but that's a lot harder to take when you don't have the solid basis of, "I believe in your talent and in other things you've written--this is a short piece and is just working," than when it's, "This is a huge undertaking, and I have no idea whether you ever will do anything worthwhile, I just know this is not it."
I don't believe that anyone who can be dissuaded from writing should be. Absolutely not. But I do believe that some ideas are not salvageable. And not every critiquer is the person to convey that message. But I personally find it useful to have some critiquers who are. So that part's complicated too.
In general, my philosophy was that the important thing was for them to keep writing, and to have something concrete to work on improving. But I needed to give them a reason not to quit in despair, and that was hard when I got the incomprehensible and gratuitously gory furry splatterpunk murder story with sentences that barely looked like English.
(I wish I were making that one up. But no: furry convention, weird creepy sexual interactions between the two characters, horrific violence, and the most amazingly bad grammar. And I felt extra-bad about it because the student was a nice guy. But oy vey. Especially because, wow, was that a test for the rest of the class, when the guy was pretty clearly flashing his id for the world to see.)
Oh yah, by the time you've critiqued a thing or two outside your own carefully selected circles, the things that sound most like jokes sound the least like jokes.
No, but sometimes it's very bad. Sometimes it's very bad indeed. There are some things you don't want to sign up for, and that's all right.
I remember one of my favorite lines from a book by Kara Dalkey didn't make it into the final version because no one told her how good it was. I've remembered since then. Good post.
I consciously use the sandwich structure because I think it's useful to be sure I have opened and ended with praise. I had a student this year who said I said nothing good about her story at all, and knowing that I always say something good made me a lot less worried about crushing her or something. But I don't put only bad stuff in the middle, either; there's a lot of good sprinkled in.
Okay, but why do you think it's useful to open and end with praise? Because that's what this post was about.
I am amazed at how far the metaphor of the shit sandwich has moved from its origin. The original observation was on wealth: X is like a shit sandwich: the more bread you have, the less shit you have to eat.
How did this metaphor get reified away from its initial social commentary?
Yes. To everything you just said. On the whole, I think that if a point has taken n reads (where n is larger, really than two or three) to stick out when the critiquer (is that even a word?) is actively looking for faults then really, is it actually something that needs working on? If you don't think you've done the job until you can find something negative to say about the piece of writing then, really, I think you probably need to find a different job, 'cos you've totally missed the point.
Also, (on the point that you and swan_tower
were discussing) I think that occasionally, being told that what has been written is a complete piece of crap with no redeeming features can be useful - as long as you can back up what you are saying with words. Frankly, I think that if the writer can take that sort of criticism and come back then, whatever the flaws in their work, it's something that can be worked through. Basically, if you are going to be put off writing by someone else then you were never going to make it as a writer in the first place.
My latest book is at the stage where I've sent it out to beta-readers and I'm waiting for feedback.
So far, the points that have been made have been extremely useful, both positive and negative. It has been far from a shit sandwich. And I'm really glad about that. I think the SS approach is really artificial and critiquing in that way means that you are at one remove from what the person critiquing the work is actually telling you. I would rather have someone telling me what they thought in the order they thought it. This, I think, would give some form of importance to the points made. So, if the first thing someone came up with was 'The lead character is an emotionless asshole who I hated' and the twentieth thing was 'I liked the way you described the flowers in the death scene but found it a bit distracting' then I would know that I'd need to work on the lead character's er... character more than pulling back on the pretty peonies.
On the whole, I'm really not sure if what I said made sense. I think you probably put it better. Care to critique my comment?
Heh. I think it's important to remember that the critiquing relationship is not actually for everything, too, so I try not to critique lj comments. Or letters from one's grandma. "Well, Grandma, you lost my interest with your account of the visit to that second cousin I never liked, and the letter only really picked up when your friend Clarice had to be taken to the hospital. I would recommend taking Clarice to the hospital sooner next time to move the--oh, there was nothing wrong with her until then? Never mind."
Seriously, though, I think that sometimes there is one biggest thing, and if someone hates the main character, leading with, "The prose was really smooth, um, and I felt like it was really polished work...I hated your main character and wished he/she would die in a fire..." is not going to make the author feel less chagrined. On the other hand, sometimes there really isn't a total ordering of importance, and sometimes going with the most important thing first is going to guarantee that that's the only thing the other person hears. So I think it really varies from critique to critique there.
2012-10-05 11:34 pm (UTC)
My opinion on the "shit sandwich" part specifically is that it's one of those areas of language that's hard to have a unified opinion on because the different parts of the sandwich are doing different things. And so the utility of those different things varies wildly due to external factors.
I worked with a woman once who was easily made uncomfortable by question or criticism of any kind... even something as mild as "I don't understand." In order to get a coherent email exchange with her, I had to open with something positive before even asking a question - then close with something positive again. This drove me up the wall so I thought about it a lot.
Here's what I took away from it - those opening and closing statements are about the relationship, not the intellectual issue in the middle. So there are many situations in which they are optional, others in which they're crucial, and some in which they're hypocritical, because they reflect the range of relationships in which the intellectual exchange can take place.
In a relationship with a sort of formal or abstracted dynamic, I think that opening compliment says "I'm happy to be involved in this exchange with you and think both you and the exchange are worthwhile." Then, after either positive or negative middle content [the sandwich need not be filled with shit], I think the closing compliment says "despite how either of us may feel about the intellectual content in the middle of this message, I continue to value our relationship."
So this is why formal academic settings, critique in a workshop where you don't know the other people, etc. may specially value that type of patterned exchange - the relationships are new and/or formal and/or have power dynamics, and need reinforcement.
On the other hand, a person who has a trusted and informal critique partner might be fine with occasionally hearing: "Your plot went kablooie and not in a good way." Or "the perspective in this drawing is just flawed." The relationship isn't threatened by this feedback and doesn't require introduction / reaffirmation. Or the feedback might be entirely positive because the person providing feedback knows the artist starts out thinking every element of the work they've just made is flawed, and so in that relationship it's a given that the critiquer is highlighting the pieces that aren't flawed. In this case the "relationship" elements of the communication are unnecessary.
Sometimes, there is no relationship. A work of literary criticism might come from a school that approaches a text without any consideration of the author; a book reviewer might review a book with an audience solely of readers.
And sometimes, unfortunately, there is a relationship and it is a hypocritical one. I think this is the case that gives the "shit sandwich" both that name and a bad reputation. The critiquer is not interested in a genuine relationship with the creator of the work being critiqued, but feels the obligation to make certain statements, either because they learned a model they don't feel the point of, or because they want to perform a social role. So they say "nice" things that come across as false, trite, or unimportant.
I support conscious relationship maintenance where appropriate. Sometimes people go rattling on expecting as though their relationships just do stuff as if by magic, and I think the only place in our culture where we're really encouraged to think in other terms is in romantic relationships--and then the places and ways in which we're encouraged to think that way are substantially formal/ritualized and not at all "how do people who are not in a formal/ritualized context do relationship maintenance." Because for a lot of people it sounds like a chore rather than a natural process. So I get what you're saying here, and it's important.
I think, among other things, that promoting this metaphor (the shit sandwich one, I mean) puts one of two models of critique relationship so far to the fore that the others are nearly invisible. One of them is the hypocritical, where the nice things a person says about your story/book are formalized and ritualistic because that is What You Do. (No one ever seems to consider that their critiquer might be overflowing with genuine praise and have to search for bad things to say because that is What You Do. As I said, the suck finds us. But I have found that if a critique is substantially positive--if what you have to say is, "You're really most of the way there, there are only a few small things," it tends to be discounted as the critiquer not giving much of a critique. When really, it can be that with all their thoughts and critical faculties, that is what they came up with.)
The other is the power relationship. Instead of this being a collaboration, where you're assessing and thinking and working together, it is a power relationship wherein you either SWALLOW the other person's ideas or SPIT THEM OUT. And that kind of relationship is a lot less likely to result in discussion like I've had in the good writers' group sessions of critique--"Okay," says the author of the piece, "so it wasn't working for you when Hepzibah didn't notice the purloined letter. What if Perceval got her out of the room? So that she wasn't being quite so dense not to see it?" And then another critiquer chimes in, "But what does that do when she needs to discover Gertrude's knitting needle behind the chair?"
I have no problem whatsoever with some good things about a piece and then some bad things. But the metaphor of the shit sandwich taints the process both as a rationale and as a mode of talking about it, and I really wish people would stop using it.
2012-10-07 01:55 pm (UTC)
Thanks so much for the extra time here, because I was totally not catching the right thread of your earlier bit. Yes, it seems to me you're right and the specific metaphor acts in a toxic way, foregrounding as you point out both the hypocritical and the unequal power dynamic possibilities.
I didn't extricate language from process as well as I might in your original post, perhaps because your post and the essay were the first times I'd ever heard the term. So I ended up reacting more to the idea of the model than to the metaphor in my overly long above.
Hey, no problem. I'm glad that it hasn't permeated your part of the world--I have hopes that it can be less pervasive than it has been for me.