Taking criticism well

Listed by the Observer as one of “Our top 50 players in the world of books”, Clare Conville previously worked as an editor at Random House, before co-founding Conville & Walsh in 2000. Between them Clare’s clients have won or been nominated for nearly every major literary prize in the UK including the Man Booker Prize, the Bollinger Everyman Woodhouse Award, the Whitbread First Novel Award, the Commonwealth Writers’ Best First Novel Award, and the Orwell Prize, the Guardian First Book Award and the Kate Greenaway Medal. Here, she discusses handling criticism well.

However fabulous we might believe ourselves to be, the truth is that one single piece of criticism carries the punch of fifty compliments. Every author I represent, however many five star reviews they receive on Amazon, however many millions of copies of their books they have sold, is sensitive to criticism, sometimes to quite an unnerving degree.

At its best, creative criticism can transform the fortunes of a book and, in turn, a writer’s career. So far so good. But the tricky thing is that though the critic is invariably right, more often than not (and I include myself in this number) the recipient is in total denial of the problem. The critical sting hurts and it is hard to remove the metaphorical arrow from the metaphorical breast bone.

As a result, we unconsciously circumnavigate what we fail to change. My experience as an agent is that when a writer faces a technical and creative challenge that at some level they feel ill-equipped to tackle, they simply press the repeat button. Some authors just write pages and pages of descriptive prose rather than work out an effective story-line, some excel at dialogue to the detriment of any world-building, others focus obsessively on the story-line. What they all have in common is that they endlessly repeat what they do well and avoid what they find difficult. Sounds familiar?

So, as with learning to evolve as a functioning human being, part of becoming a writer, is to learn to take the best of the criticism that is offered, hone and shape one’s writing skills accordingly, thereby developing the art of thoughtful and rigorous self-criticism. All of this, without beating oneself up too much in the process. If it sounds too challenging, sometimes just putting a newly-minted manuscript in a drawer for two weeks before looking at it again is enough to kick-start the critical faculties.

An invaluable lesson for me was working on the American edition of a book called Dangerous Women which I co-authored. Our American publisher, Elizabeth Schmitz at Grove Atlantic, also happened to be a close friend but she did what I should have done and took the manuscript apart, word by word. Eight hours and two stiff martinis later I took stock. It had been painful but she was right. Too many adjectives and adverbs! Less is more! But above all, I needed to recognise that what was intended to be funny and insightful came over melancholy to the point of earnest. A Buddhist master might say of this experience, revere the teacher who shows you the transitory nature of sorrow as well as joy.

Most important of all I had learnt what it was like to sit in the writer’s chair as opposed to the agent or editor’s.

However, one thing niggled at the time. Elizabeth wanted to take the word “feminism” out of the text. She thought it was too worthy and academic. I agreed because I wanted to please her rather than because I thought she was right. Subsequently, out came memoirs by Tina Fey and Caitlin Moran, the series GIRLS, and any number of cultural manifestations of a new wave of feminist girl-power. Whilst it is doubtful that adding the word feminism would have changed the book’s trajectory – it sold all of three copies in the States –  it was important to us. We had anticipated a cultural shift and I should have stood by my guns and remembered an important lesson that my author DBC Pierre had taught me some years previously.

When I took on Pierre he had never met an agent, let alone a publisher or another author. At our initial meeting we spent several hours going through his first novel, Vernon God Little. I gave him my critical feedback and he studiously took notes. The manuscript came back to me two weeks later. He hadn’t changed a word. Charmed by the book and by Pierre, I submitted it to publishers regardless. It went on to win the Booker Prize, The Whitbread First Novel Award and the Everyman PG Wodehouse Award for Comic Fiction and sold in 46 territories around the world.

Point taken, Pierre!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *