Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Appropriate Critical Criteria

A few days ago I received an email from a writer mentioning that in his former critique group he was the only male. He expressed a certain frustration that “chick lit” or other unsuitable criteria were being applied to the kind of writing he was doing.

I had a similar experience in a group I belonged to. I learned a lot from those female authors, and am a much better writer for their input. But occasionally I felt that a “women’s fiction” template was being placed over what I was trying to do with my story.

Listening to the local classical station today, I thought of an analogy. I admire the symphonies of Robert Schumann (1810-1856), frequently heard on that station. Having studied music history, I am aware that critics have sometimes considered Schumann a poor orchestrator — that is, he was not very imaginative about which instruments played which melodic lines.

But the interest in Schumann’s symphonies is not in the orchestration. His work exhibits a tremendous strength in the harmonization, the interplay of various musical ideas, and the development of the music until a climactic moment is achieved. That’s where the interest lies in Schumann’s type of composing, and re-orchestration of his works would hardly bring an improvement in their effect.

True, Schumann wasn’t a colorful orchestrator like Berlioz (1803-1869) or the later Elgar, Ravel and Mahler, whose symphonic works sparkle with fascinating instrumental effects. But there is little in symphonic literature to rival the excitement as Schumann’s Third Symphony (for example) builds to its conclusion. It’s an excitement of structure and melodic and harmonic interplay that would benefit little from a revised orchestration.

One might take this example to heart in the realm of writing. In applying a critique to a novelist’s chapter, the commentator needs to ask: What’s the writer’s purpose? Would adding certain details (such as character description, emotional response, and the like) contribute much to the overall effect? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. But the question needs to be asked from the right perspective, and not through some popular critical grid.

I am thankful that Schumann’s music has survived his critics, to be enjoyed by discerning listeners to this day. May that be true of our good writing, whatever form it takes.