Do you remember that a cappella singing competition one of the networks aired last year? It was only supposed to last a week, but I stopped watching around the time the judges voted off the group affiliated with my alma mater.
After the few times this group performed, the judges only had one real piece of criticism: “Well, that was good, but you were really lacking in your lower register. You need more bass.” But here’s the thing: The group, Noteworthy, is an all-girl a cappella group. Of course they didn’t have any bass--they’re women! And the producers knew that when they invited them--yes, invited them--to do the show.
This is the sort of criticism that I would say is never constructive. Short of completely redefining who they were (which was impossible within the context of the competition and impractical in real life), Noteworthy couldn’t do a thing about the feedback they received.
All the criticism I’ve received has been marvelously constructive, so you shouldn’t interpret this as a not-so-subtle barb at one of my own betas. I was just reading some feedback someone else received on another site the other day, and I thought that one of the people offering criticism was being overly unconstructive. Essentially, the critter was attacking the writer’s voice, saying things like “Your writing style is boring” and “No teenager would ever want to read this.”
While it’s all right to say things like “I think you can infuse this passage with more personality” and “This doesn’t sound like something the character would think or say,” it’s not okay to make blanket statements about how the writer writes or the viability of the project. Voice is one of those sacred elements of writing that is totally unique, so to belittle someone’s voice is essentially to belittle who he or she is as a writer.
We may read something, and we may find it a little bland. We may read something, and we may know that the writer is still growing into his or her own voice. But that doesn’t give us the right to declare that writer’s writing as unreadable or unpublishable. Because if there’s one thing I learned as an economist that this industry has only confirmed time and time again, it’s that there really is no accounting for taste.
I can pretty much guarantee that every book I despise, somebody else loves. And every book I love, someone else abhors (or at least doesn’t like). You know that little series about a lightning-marked wizard that everyone, including me, adores? Yeah, well, my mother didn’t make it past the first few chapters of book one. And you know that book that everyone maligns, that everybody calls the most poorly written piece of slop that ever sucked the ink out of a printer (pun intended)? I actually still like it (although I recognize that wordsmithing isn’t the author’s strongest suit).
To make a long post short, criticism should inspire and encourage. It shouldn’t make the writer want to give up and go home.