The Critic and the Writer

A chance comment suddenly helped crystalize my thoughts on something I’ve been looking for a way to talk about for at least thirty years. It has to do with the way a book is analyzed after the fact, versus how it is constructed.

The comment was on my novel, Dzur, and it discussed how the food described at the beginning of each chapter commented on and interacted with the events in that chapter.  And, yeah, I did that.

After the fact, from the point of view of the critic or the reader, that was a complex bit of layering, where the reader is invited to  consider additional depths of the work.  Sounds pretty nifty, right? Also, probably, pretentious and maybe affected.

But from my perspective, as I was writing it, it was utterly prosaic and practical. Those “additional depths” were hooks to help me figure out what happened next. That’s it. I’d start with the description of the food, then, if I got stuck trying to decide what happened in that chapter, I’d read that description to see if it gave me any ideas.  And, as I was describing the action, I might go back and tweak the description of the food a little, because by then it had become a game I was playing with myself.

I was well aware that this would have the result of a work that had more depth, more texture, more of what Emma Bull has called the “chewy bits.” And that’s great.  But at the end of the day, to me, it was a bit of business I was using to help me figure out what happened in the story.

The analysis by the critic is every bit as valid as the remembered experience of the writer.  I love a good critic for the insights into a work he or she can give me. But the analysis by the critic has little in common with the experience of creation.

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I play the drum.

20 thoughts on “The Critic and the Writer”

  1. I would love to see the criticism, if it isn’t too long or nasty, because I can’t imagine what it would be. I like your description of your process. I like the result. Better that you like food rather than be obsessed with sex or whatever. I do have a criticism – I gain weight when I read some of your stuff. ;>)

  2. Thanks for that process information. Great info! I’m always interested in the myriad ways that authors use to construct their works. There are some broad categories (pantser vs plotter, …) but there is a great variation as well.

    If you ever get a chance (and haven’t already), ask Ada Palmer about how she maps out the Terra Ignota books. My mind was blown.

  3. I was right in the middle of a FHYA re-read, but now I may have to switch to Dzur midstream.

  4. So true! That is why very few good critics are creative writers. The only writers I can think of who were truly good at both were Robertson Davies and Ursula Le Guin, with George Barnard Shaw getting an honorable mention. And Davies had a very funny description of the afterlife of critics in one of his ghost stories.

  5. Wow, I was just talking 2 days ago about how “the one with the food woulda made a good tv show,” -except ironically the food part itself might not easily translate to a visual medium.

  6. “But the analysis by the critic has little in common with the experience of creation.”

    Sure. The experience of the reader too has little in common with the experience of creation. But a good critic (or anyone* commenting on a creation) can sometimes deepen the learning and pleasure (experience) for certain readers.

    How much would you like Peace by Gene Wolfe if you hadn’t talked with Neil?

    * This includes the creator of the work, and that’s part of why some fans are keen to hear their favorite authors talk about their process.

  7. I am reminded of another of your books, I can’t remember which one off the top of my head, where at the beginning of each chapter is a short note to a laundry service on how to repair a shirt and get the stains out. The rest of the chapter is more or less about how the stain/rip happened.

  8. Your thoughts on writing Dzur recall to my mind the thread on harmonics. By writing a food description then finding and creating the action of the story, you were pressing your fingers down on the frets. Just the mechanical operation of writing, with a food chaser.

    But when you managed to get the two to sing together like in a harmony, it was becoming music. And there were things you were putting in that resonated at even more levels. I suspect, some of which you were conscious of at the time, and some that just kind of happened.

    Do critics hear tunes or echoes that you did not set out to create, yet, once you think about it, yep, they are there?

  9. Well. I do not want to be presumptuous, but this is a blog about writing, and your writing. Care to give us an example?

  10. I know. We’re having trouble with this web site. I hope to get it fixed eventually, and then add the missing books.

  11. Ugh. I’d have to dig around and try to remember where I saw the comment that triggered this, and I’m too lazy.

  12. Hmm, I smell a Narrativity panel topic….

    This likely is part of why I bounce off of so much how-to-write discussion: it’s analyzing the effect after the fact, and I’m looking for the in-the-midst-of-creation process. I don’t seem to translate back from the other to one very well.

  13. I write short stories, mostly for my own amusement. So that is not the same as a novel, which requires a real commitment. But from my point of view, the whole point is to tell a good story (the creation part). If the story inspires and entertains you (the author), that is half the job done. Later you can go over and re-write the story as many times it is needed to make it flow easier for the reader. That is part of the process (to me). Best to let it sit for a while so you can edit with fresh eyes.

    Many novels I’ve read are really a collection of short stories (chapters) on the same theme that all fit together. I guess that requires a roadmap and a rough outline of what is going to happen in a given chapter and how the book ends. But not so much detail that it interferes with creativity or makes things mechanical by forcing things to happen.

    My $.02 from a dilatant writer.

  14. There are myriad problems with tech
    My impression’s thus: He’s no oobleck
    I think it is blatant
    When it comes out dilatant
    We’ve all been there, David Hajicek

  15. The first thing I do when I get a new device is to ruthlessly hunt through all the settings to eliminate anticipatory text, auto-spell, and another other program that believes it knows what I am going to type.

    As those of you who have read my posts on skzb’s excellent blog over the years can attest, I am a pretty bad speller. But my errors are my own.

  16. I just want to say – thank you for your books.You give to me some inspiration, even. (I am writer, myself).
    P.S. Sorry for bad english, it is not my language.

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