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  #1  
Old 04-10-2010, 07:53 AM
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Default Thoughts on the criticism of others(Part 1)

THOUGHTS ON THE CRITICISM OF OTHERS

The first criticism of my writing, at least the criticism that I remember, was in 1950 when I was in grade one in the then small southern Ontario town of Burlington, a part of what is still called the Golden Triangle. It’s jammed right at the left-hand end of Lake Ontario. I’m sure I received criticism of my writing in the three years before that from my family members and playmates, perhaps as early as 1947 when I was three or four and colouring or printing my first words on paper, but I have no memories of that incoming criticism, no memories until, as I say, 1950. That was more than 60 years ago(1950 to 2010).

Early in this new, this third, millennium, in 2004 to be precise, I began to receive written criticism of my prose and poetry on the internet. I had received criticism, mostly verbal, of my published writing from 1974 to 2004 during which time I was able to get some 150 essays published in newspapers and magazines in Australia. Writing had become, by the 1970s, a more central focus to my life, much more central than it had ever been, although it had always been central in one way or another at least, as I say above, since 1950. When one is a student receiving criticism of what one writes is part of the core of the educational process. Sometimes that criticism is fair and helpful; sometimes it is unkind the destructive.

Being on the receiving end of criticism on the internet has been, in some ways, just a continuation of that half-century(1950-2000) of comments on what I wrote. The internet is full of lumpen bully-boys who prowl the blogosphere. There are the hysterical secularists who proliferate among that commentariat. There are the dogmatic Islamists and Christian fundamentalists who try to impose their interpretation of the Quran or the Bible on the rest of the Muslim or Christian communities, respectively. Literary tyrants have always come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and one must deal with them in one way or another as their criticisms come your way in the daily round. There are many MOs, modus operandi, to use a term from the who-dun-its, in dealing with the harsh and not so harsh words of others.

The reactions of two famous writers to criticism of their work are discussed below in this 3100 word essay because their reactions throw light onto my own way of dealing with this inevitable reality of life if one is, as I am, a writer, a poet, a man of words, a writer of belles-lettres, a belletrist. For many writers the term belles lettres is used in the sense to identify literary works that do not fall easily into the major categories such as fiction, poetry or drama. Much of my writing has become, in the last twenty-five years, 1985 to 2010, a hybrid that does not really fit comfortably into the major categories of writing.

And so it is that after more than sixty years of having to deal with the phenomenon of critical feedback of my written work I pause here to reflect on the incoming criticism of what I have written and what I now write drawing, as I say, on the experience of two other writers in the last century, writers of fame and much success.
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In 1936, right at the start of the Baha’i teaching Plan, a Plan in which I have been myself engaged in a host of ways during the last fifty years(1959-2010), the American poet Laura Riding(1901-1991) wrote to a correspondent: "I believe that misconceptions about oneself which one does not correct, but where it is possible to correct, act as a bad magic.” That bad magic has been at work on the reputation of Laura Riding for many years, for well over 70 years.

One of the criticisms levelled at her in her later life, and repeated recently by the renowned literary critic Dr. Helen Vendler, was that she "spent a great deal of time writing tenacious and extensive letters to anyone who, in her view, had misrepresented some aspect, no matter how minute, of her life or writing." Vendler found Riding, somewhat predictably, "more than a little monomaniacal,” in relation to criticism of her work. It is true that despite advanced age and failing health, Riding continued her vigorous and valiant, one might even say, fanatical attempt to halt the spread of misconceptions about herself and her writing to the very end of her life. But the "bad magic" was too powerful to be overcome. Incidentally, this view of criticism that Riding held, the view that it was “bad magic," was held by a woman who was also accused of being a witch and of exercising a literary witchcraft by some of her zealous critics.

Why was Riding so scrupulous in her attempts to correct misconceptions of her life and writing no matter how minute? It was, partly at least, because she recognized the importance of details to the understanding of human character. "The details of human nature are never a matter of infinitesimals," she wrote in an essay published in 1974. "Every last component of the human course of things is a true fraction of the personal world, reflecting a little its general character." She, like many other writers and non-writers it should be added, never welcome criticism. Some react to the slightest criticism like a cornered wildcat and others like a barking dog.

My approach to incoming criticism is more diverse than Riding’s, not as consistently intense and defensive, not as sensitive to infinitesimals, not like that wildcat or that barking dog. Sometimes I ignore the comment; sometimes I am tenacious and write an extensive response; sometimes I write something brief and to the point. Sometimes I deal with the comment with some attempt at humour, sarcasm and wit, if I can locate these clever sorts of written repartee in my intellectual and sensory emporium. I certainly agree with Riding that we should not be judged by some infinitesimals, but it is difficult when one writes extensively in the public domain not to be judged by all sorts of things of which infinitesimals are but one of the many.

After six years from 2004 to 2010 of keeping some of the written and critical feedback sent to me by readers on the internet, I must conclude that, thusfar, the negative feedback hardly amounts to much that is of any significance, at least to me. This is not to say that this criticism has not been useful. Most of the feedback has to do with my participation at various websites, participation that was negatively viewed. My posts were seen, when viewed in a negative light, as: too long, not appropriate, raising the hackles of some readers because they were seen as irrelevant, boring, inter alia. I thought this personal statement here, this brief overview, analysis and comment, would be a useful summary of both the incoming criticism I have received in the last six years and my views on that criticism.

Some people on the internet let you know in no uncertain terms what they think of your posts. Frankness, candour, invective, harsh criticism, indeed, criticism in virtually every conceivable form, can be found in the interstices of cyberspace, if one writes as much as I do at more than 6000 locations among the 260 million sites and 4.6 billion subjects, topics or items of information at last count, that are now in existence in that world of cyberspace. In the last six years I have been on the receiving end of everything imaginable that someone can say negatively about someone’s writing. This negative feedback has been, as I say, useful and I have tried to respond in ways that improve readers’ opinions of my work. Sometimes I am successful in these efforts of explanation, of self-justification, of defence, and sometimes I am not. Such are the perils of extensive writing and human interaction; indeed, such are the perils of living unless one is a hermit and does one’s own plumbing and electrical work, never goes shopping and replies only on the products of one’s garden for food.
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  #2  
Old 04-10-2010, 07:55 AM
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Default THOUGHTS ON THE CRITICISM OF OTHERS(Part 2)

To draw now on a second writer and how he dealt with criticism, I introduce Sir Isaiah Berlin(1909-1997). He was a leading political philosopher and historian of ideas. In a lecture he gave in 1970 on the Russian poet Ivan Turgenev, Berlin pointed out that this famous Russian writer altered, modified and tried to please everyone in some of his works. As a result, one of the characters in his books “suffered several transformations in successive drafts, up and down the moral scale as this or that friend or consultant reported their impressions.” Berlin went on to say in that same lecture that Turgenev was inflicted by intellectual wounds as a result of the criticism of his works by others, wounds that festered by varying degrees of intensity, depending of course on the nature of the criticism, for the rest of Turgenev’s life.

Turgenev was attacked by writers and critics of many persuasions on the Left and the Right of the political spectrum in those days when these terms left and right had more clear and understandable demarcations. This Russian writer possessed, Berlin noted, what some have called “a capacity for rendering the very multiplicity of inter-penetrating human perspectives that shade imperceptibly into each other, nuances of character and behaviour, motives and attitudes, undistorted by moral passion.” Turgenev, like Riding, could never bear the wounds he received from incoming criticism of his writing in silence. He shook and shivered under the ceaseless criticisms to which he exposed himself, so Berlin informs us.

After more than sixty years(1949-2010), then, of having my writing poured over by others; after more than forty-five years(1964-2010) of having my writing reviewed before its publication by Baha’i reviewing committees at national and local levels of Baha’i administration and its institutions and even by some individuals and groups at the Bahá'í World Centre in Haifa Israel; after trying to write in a way that would please various groups of people both within the Baha’i community and without by committees, colleagues, professors, tutors, students and teachers at a multitude of educational institutions---before my writing saw the light of day in some publication or school-handout, I came to enjoy writing on the internet.

The National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Australia Inc, the nationally elected body by the Bahá'í community in Australia does not require writers like myself to have their writing reviewed before it goes onto the internet. The Review office of the NSA of the Baha’is of the USA has given me permission to post my works on the internet, although they have advised that further review is necessary if I want to place my writing in book form, in a hard or soft cover, for general and public consumption.

Pleasing others, of course, is still important but, for me, there is a new found freedom of expression that the internet provides. Part of this freedom is due to the advantages and pleasures of age. Now in the early evening of my life, these middle years(65 to 75) of late adulthood(60 to 80) as human development theorists refer to this period in the lifespan, with jobs/employment positions far behind me, no one checks what I write before it goes into the light of cyberspace. My own editing pen is kept busy, but editing has never been one of my favorite activities and I tend to rush this part of the writing job, at least initially. I then revise, alter, subtract, add, delete and edit in a multitude of ways as a result of incoming comments, both encomium and opprobrium. Sometimes I make no changes at all to that initial post.

After my writing gets onto the world-wide-web it is ignored, criticized, diagnosed, interpreted, subjected to hair-splittings and logic choppings by readers, posters, moderators and administrators at internet sites. I am on the receiving end of invective and negative appraisals, accusation and berating, blame and blasphemy, castigation and censure, condemnation and contumely, denunciation and diatribe, epithet and obloquy, philippic and reproach, revilement and sarcasm, scurrility and tirade, tongue-lashing and vilification. I am given more advice than I receive at home from those I love and who love me and more than I ever got as a student and teacher.

I am viewed as tactless, insensitive, awfully boring and told where to get off, where to go, where to go for further writing courses to help me in my literary vocation and avocation and why I should discontinue the practice of writing entirely. I am also told what a wonderful inspiration my writing is. Compliments, flattery and praise abound. These words of encomium and opprobrium, as I say, that I receive are really not much different than; indeed, are much the same as, the words other writers get when their words are found between hard and soft cover books. Even the writings of Shakespeare, the Bible and other major works in the western tradition get great buckets of criticism poured on them from the generations which have come on the scene since the post-world-war-2 years, those now 65 and under, to chose a convenient timeframe for most of the incoming criticism I receive. At many of the sections of cyberspace where I post most of those who have come to inhabit these parts of the WWW, now in its first generation, say, 1990 to 2010, if one defines a generation as twenty years, are the Y-generation. They were born between the mid-1970s to the first years of the 2000s. These generation Y people are today's teens, 20s and 30s, the millennial generation, the net generation. Some say that generation X are those born between 1974 and 1980. The fine-tuning of these labels gets a bit complex.

I could benefit from the assistance of one, Rob Cowley, affectionately known in publishing circles back in the seventies and early eighties as “the Boston slasher.” His editing is regarded in some circles as constructive and deeply sensitive. If he could amputate several dozen pages, several thousand words, of my explorations on the net with minimal agony to my emotional equipment I’m sure readers would be the beneficiaries. But alas, I think Bob is dead. I did find an editor, a copy- proofreader and friend who does not slash and burn but leaves one's soul quite intact as he wades through my labyrinthine passages, smooths it all out and excises undesirable elements. But this editor is in the late evening of his life and after editing several hundred pages of my writing he has tired of the exercise and so I am left on my own. Perhaps one day I may assume the role that Cowley exercised so well in life as the Boston Slasher. But in the meantime and without my editor friend, I advise readers not to hold their breath waiting for me to do what is a necessary edit.

Critical scholarly contributions or criticism raised in public or private discussions should not necessarily be equated with hostility. Questions are perfectly legitimate, indeed, necessary aspects of a person's search for an answer to an intellectual conundrum. Paul Tillich, that great Protestant theologian of the 20th century, once expressed the view that apologetics was an "answering theology."-Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, U. of Chicago, 1967, Vol.1, p6.

I have always been attracted to the founder of the Baha'i Faith's exhortations in discussion to "speak with words as mild as milk," with "the utmost lenience and forbearance." This form of dialogue, its obvious etiquette of expression and the acute exercise of judgement involved, is difficult for most people when their position is under attack from people who are more articulate, better read and better at arguing both their own position and the position of those engaged in the written criticism than they are. I am also aware that, in cases of rude or hostile attack, rebuttal with a harsher tone, the punitive rebuttal, may well be justified, although I prefer humour, irony and even gentle sarcasm rather than hostile written attack in any form. Still, it does not help an apologist to belong to those "watchmen" whom the prophet Isaiah calls "dumb dogs that cannot bark."(Isaiah, 56:10)

In its essence criticism is often just another form of confrontation, an act of revealing one's true colours, of hoisting the flag, of demonstrating the essential characteristics of one's faith, of one's thought, of one's emotional and intellectual stance in life. “Dialogue does not mean self-denial,” wrote Hans Kung, arguably the greatest of Catholic apologists. The standard of public discussion of controversial topics should be sensitive to what is said and how; it should be sensitive to manner, mode, style, tone and volume. Tact is also essential. Not everything that we know should always be disclosed; not everything that can be disclosed it timely or suited to the ears of the hearer. To put this another way, we don't want all our dirty laundry out on our front lawn for all to see or our secrets blasted over the radio and TV. Perhaps a moderate confessionalism is best here, if confession is required at all—and in today’s print and electronic media it seems unavoidable. Much of internet dialogue, though, is far, far, below standards of even a reasonable literacy as posters “f,” “c” and “s” their way through discussions with the briefest of phraseology, a succinctness that approaches sheer nothingness and an inarticulateness that has more in common with grunts and sighs as well as whimpers and whims and betrays a basic knowledge based on visual media and little reading.

Anyway, that's all for now. It's back to the autumn winds of Tasmania, about 3 kms from the Bass Straight on the Tamar River.
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Canadian in Australia, married for 45 years, a teacher for 35, a writer and editor for 13, and a Baha'i for 53(in 2012). He has also written 8 books all available on the internet.
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Old 04-19-2010, 05:25 AM
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G'day Ron, thanks for that write, it was an interesting read. Not a single piece of bull-s-h-i-t (yes I'm an aussie) amongst it all, if I may say so, instead filled with worthwhile, reasonable, witty and intelligent concepts and expressions of them.

You wanna post up (or pm) a link or three about where to get hold of some of your free writings please.

Regards, Peacewise.

A writer must have both a thick skin and a thin skin, thick enough to take the typical vast hoard of criticism that is thrown at us, whilst thin enough to be able to still accept input... but you know this already as your two posts here have indicated.

The feeling that I get from these few years I have immersed myself into forums of cyberspace is that it's too easy, too easy to sledge and hassle and ad hominem, rather than even attempt to present coherent argument. A site recently that I discovered described it as "internet arguing" a "How to Win any Argument on the Internet", it's at somethingawful.com if you care to share the enlightened laugh that i got from it. I would post the link, but I've not yet done my required 15 posts that allows me to post links, if you pm me and request it I'll provide it, but a google search using the info I've provided will find it quickly.

edit in now i'm past 15 posts. http://www.somethingawful.com/d/news/how-win-any.php

So how are your days down there in Tassie, I'm in the Adelaide Hills.
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Old 01-01-2014, 04:40 AM
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Default Belated Apologies Peacewise

Belated Apologies Peacewise....you can go to my website with its 60 books at 80,000 words/book, FYI, at: Ron Price - Pioneering Over Five Epochs
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