Criticism is difficult to interpret. In the first place, everyone’s experience of a text is valid. And I don’t mean that in a New Age-y, touchy-feely way. With books, even more than with movies or even comics (although those too), the experience is necessarily personal; so much has to be “unpacked” by the reader. For example, there are only so many things an author can say about the setting before the description starts to get tedious, which is what Hemingway was getting at when he said you don’t need to tell people about the boat or the fisherman or the water — just tell them about the glint of dew on the fishing line and they would bring the rest with them.
A book is not a passive medium, like TV. It has to be read, to be stretched upon the canvas of the mind, and the narrative is built out of that based on the reader’s own experiences and expectations. It’s akin to a reader staging their own play with their own sets and cast. It is its own creative act, and so it is necessarily valid.
But then, if each reader’s experience is valid, it means no one reader’s experience is canon, and so writers must become critical readers of their own critical feedback. Just as each critic “unpacks” the text in their head, so each writer must do the same with the responding criticism. We have to infer and construct the reader’s critical milieu in our heads based on different cues and experience.
For example, I am usually able to tell which of my beta readers didn’t engage with the story. I can’t describe this feeling in a few sentences, but it’s usually quite clear. There is a kind of detached language coupled with an odd preoccupation with small detail. This person did not unpack the narrative in their mind; they studied it at arm’s length.
I usually discount such feedback. As much as I appreciate the time and effort, it’s just not very useful. Not every reader is going to be a reader of mine, and I am not trying to make a book everyone will enjoy, not least because no such thing is possible. I’m trying to write a book that “readers of mine” would enjoy, where that class is both fluid and fuzzy at the edges.
Then there’s the fact that if you ask people for criticism, they’re going to find things to criticize. It’s a lesson I learned in my corporate career working with lawyers and auditors, whose job it is to pick at things. A healthy business can become sickly merely by hiring a lawyer. (I once asked a VP at Ernst & Young if, in 35 years, he had ever produced a clean audit — that is, NOT found any issue — and he just smiled and said “Well, that’s not what you do, is it?”)
Of course, as a writer (soliciting beta readers, for example) you have asked for feedback, so it makes no sense to simply turn around and ignore it once it comes. It’s just that deciding what to do with it isn’t simple. It isn’t a transliteration of meaning. It’s a translation between two different “cultures,” two different and complex critical milieus.
Neil Gaiman once said that when people tell you something doesn’t work, they are usually right, but when they tell you how to fix it, they are usually wrong. I think that’s true, but only in the aggregate. “Doesn’t work” is defined in the plural. Multiple people need to suggest a problem for it not to be merely idiosyncratic.
Thus, regardless of what appears in my inbox — and for those who’ve never solicited beta readers, responses range from “I really liked this story and I feel bad because I don’t know what else to say” to “Here is an itemized list of everything wrong with the book compete with page numbers for reference and suggestions for how to fix it!” — beta feedback is not any of that. It is NOT what beta readers have typed. It is, like the experience of a novel in the reader’s mind, a virtual entity constructed in my head from my reading of the complete volume of feedback, and it may include all or none of what any individual reported.
This “unpacking” and reconstruction is, like any subtle art, something one can either be good or bad at, and I suspect those writers who are better at it, naturally, are the ones producing better books. And so, as arrogant as it may sound, I must conclude that that grows from the talent of the author or artist, not the quality of the feedback. That is, criticism is not the flower but the offal from which it blooms. It’s not critics that make artists better, as some assume. Rather, better artists grow out of criticism.
As it should be.