Marissa Lingen (mrissa) wrote,
Marissa Lingen

It's not a sandwich, it's architecture.

I was reading an essay of Daniel Abraham's over at Clarkesworld, and it brought up a really common model of critique that I wanted to take issue with, because how we apprehend the metaphor can really affect how we perceive the content. Abraham writes: "There are numerous guides on how to give a good critique. The most basic is the 'shit sandwich' approach: You say something good about the work, then all the stuff that was crap in the middle, and end with something else good. The most honest was Maureen McHugh's description of a good critique: 'Say something true and useful.' Regardless, the point of a critique is to find fault—often to take a perfectly good story and reread it as many times as I have to in order to find something wrong, then think about how to fix it."

Okay, well: I am entirely with Maureen McHugh. Entirely entirely. Go Maureen, for you have the rightness of it.

That last sentence, while not the focus of this post, is to my way of thinking entirely wrong. Entirely. Luckily for many of us, our stories are not perfectly good when our critiquers are reading them, and so the difference between this sentence and the actual point of a critique can be approximately equal to zero. But if you read the story several times and think hard about it and do not find fault with it, the answer is not, "Just keep trying to find fault." The answer is that from your perspective as a critiquer, further futzing with this story is not necessary and will probably be counterproductive. Because stories may be infinitely perfectable, but not always with you as a critiquer. The elements that you find on the thirteenth read as a critiquer that struck you as perfectly fine on the twelfth and are now getting on your nerves may well be perfectly fine elements and artifacts of looking at the thing under a microscope. (When you're the writer, that's somewhat different.) You can decide, if you like, that a drop-dead gorgeous person is hideous merely by looking at their pores obsessively. This is not useful. And it does not mean that you have now served your purpose as a critiquer, now that you can say, "Actually I think the eyelashes of the right eye are a little too sparse," leaving someone to fixate on mascara, irritate her eye, and get an infection in it. Okay, this metaphor has run away with me. But seriously. This can happen to stories. Only find fault with things you honestly find fault with. Do not go into a critique thinking, "Must find the suck."

(Honestly, this is so rarely a problem. The suck will so often find you.)

But that's not what I meant to talk about.

No, I meant to talk about the shit sandwich. Yum! What a tasty metaphor!

The thing about the shit sandwich model is that while it works all right in terms of the psychology of getting people to listen to your negative points, knowing that the shit sandwich model is in use can undermine your positive points, and positive points are seriously important. I saw this happen in one of my own crit groups. It was an early session, and the person being critiqued started to protest that the group did not need to baby him/her with all the nice things--she/he could take criticism of the work in question.

But the group was not babying, and the group was not providing the proverbial shit sandwich, and what we were doing was a fundamental part of the criticism. We were pointing out where the book was solid. Because when we did go into the "this is where things are totally not working" portion of the discussion--varying from person to person about where, in fact, things did not work, but coming up with some consensus points--it was good for the writer to have an idea of where things did work (and for which kinds of reader). It was good for that not to get lost. It was, in fact, necessary for that not to get lost. Because otherwise if you start in with a critique like "all the characters whose names begin with B should get cut completely," or, "this story needs army ants," the restructuring involved can wipe out worthwhile aspects of the story unintentionally. The writer can lose sight of really good things.

And here's the thing: I think there's this perception that every writer will think that everything they do is awesome unless you actively tell them that it sucks. This is...oh, what's the word I'm looking for here?...bullshit. Everybody has a characteristic set of errors. But they are not all the same. Some people really do think that every word they write is a shining droplet of gold, and they really do need their critiquers to grab them by the shoulders and say, "HEY BOZO," and even then they will change only as many words as necessary to remove the bozo stigma. Other people are really eager to take critique well, to the point where they will hear a critique and immediately think of how they can rewrite the whole thing! from the ground up! with a new perspective! and a new tense! and possibly a new speculative conceit! And so on.

And it's all very well to say that the people who are eager to take critique well need to have confidence in their work, but you might as well say that the HEY BOZO people need to have humility. We all need to be aware of our characteristic errors. But the point of the shit sandwich metaphor is that it places critique into a framework where the critiquer is trying to get the original writer to swallow something. That's not what's going on. You're not trying to get them to do what you want or think what you want. You're the building inspector. You're pointing out what is and is not structurally sound. And the "is" is just as important as the "is not." You don't say, "I really loved the protagonist's relationship with her sister" because you want the person you're critiquing to go home with a warm fuzzy feeling, and you don't say it because you want to manipulate the person you're critiquing into doing what you want about the revelation of the murderer. You do it because the protagonist's relationship with her sister is a solid, true piece of writing that is worth protecting in the revisions. The writer doesn't have to pour new concrete there, or figure out a different shape for the arch so that the ceiling will keep out the rain. And the writer shouldn't sigh and remove a really beautiful fan vault and replace it with a brutalist flat tarred roof unless it's absolutely necessary--and certainly not while thinking that nobody really saw what the fan vault was doing in the story.

Oh, metaphors. They're so bad for me.
Tags: full of theories
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