Thursday, October 27, 2016

Feedback You Give, Feedback You Receive - What Is It Worth?

Even if a person is older, more experienced and more educated than you it doesn't mean
that person is competent enough to give you advice.

When I was in first grade of school my German teacher told me to forget my native language, since I wouldn't need it anymore. This is when I first learned that teachers sometimes say plain b***s***.

I never took that advice seriously. Later I've learned that being bilingual helps a lot with learning new languages and that forgetting one's native language leads to tragic developments in the family. Today I have a master's degree in Russian literature and am hexalingual, I can read four alphabets and am still eager to learn. I don't dare imagining what I would have become if I had followed my teacher's advice.

One more important thing I've learned in later life is that this lesson applies to many areas of life, art being one of them: Even if a person is older, more experienced and more educated than you it doesn't mean that person is competent enough to give you advice. To decide whether a critic is right or wrong is up to you and nobody else.

Questioning Advice

When we try to become better at our art we naturally look for advice. And if we're lucky people approach us by themselves and tell us what we do well and what we should work on. It helps a lot which is why every artistic community encourages its members to give each other feedback and appreciate other people's critique. What we're often not encouraged do to is to question the feedback we receive.

I don't know where it originally comes from, but sometimes I feel that there is some kind of an unspoken consensus that the feedback giver is usually right. This is partly true, because the feedback giver is always right in his own world. When someone says he couldn't relate to the characters it's true for that one person. But it doesn't mean other readers couldn't relate to the characters. That one particular reader could have just a completely different background and moral values than your characters. The reader could have been distracted while reading. Or the reader maybe just didn't understand what your story was about.

Can a Reader Be Incompetent?

It's funny how different readers perceive one and the same story differently. Many years ago I wrote a story where the crippled and depressive male protagonist labelled a female character stupid and kept repeating "I hate stupidity" like a mantra throughout the whole story. Ironically, he had chosen her company himself. When I gave a copy of that story to my mother she said the protagonist was in love with that girl right after reading the story for the first time. When I published that story online none of my readers realized that my protagonist was stubbornly lying to himself and understood the story only literally, even after reading it multiple times. When I said that the two characters are actually in love with each other I was told it just doesn't come across. Apparently my online readers didn't feel that the protagonist "hated" that girl a bit too obsessively.

So was the story good or not? It's really hard to say when only part of the audience sees the "deeper" meaning. There's always the question: Are the hints I gave in the story too subtle or is my audience just not competent enough to see them? The horrible thing about this question is: I still don't know the answer.

However, I do believe there is such a thing as an incompetent reader. It's only a few months ago that I read a comment on a story with an autodiegetic first-person narrator. The reader criticized that the language was too judging and that there was no insight into other characters. I repeat: It was a first-person narrator. Of course his language is judging, subjective and without insight into other characters, as the protagonist - like most people - lacked the ability to read minds. In my humble opinion, it was a classical case of a critique given without much thinking and understanding. The reader obviously had certain expectations that just weren't met. So that the reader didn't like certain aspects of the story basically was his own fault, not the author's.

A Reader's Expectations vs. the Author's Intention

Examples of such misplaced feedback are everywhere. A couple of years ago I got negative feedback for a story of mine, saying my story wasn't engaging. Well, what can I say? It was actually the whole point of the story. It was about two people who meet every Tuesday on a train station and apparently would like to get to know each other but are just unable to start a conversation (as it often happens here in Germany where people are often too afraid to approach each other and small talk isn't as commonplace as in the US for instance). I did everything I could think of to make the narration as unengaging and monotonous as possible, so the readers would look at my characters from a distance. I didn't want my readers to "dive" into the story and feel for my characters. I didn't want to create suspense à la: "Will they get together?" I wanted my readers to question my characters' actions and realize the irony and ludicrosity of their situation.

All of my other readers understood my intention and one reader even applied the story to her own situation in a comment: "I really should start talking to him." I see it as proof that my decision to tell the story the way I did wasn't wrong at all. This is why I believe it is important to always question the feedback you get. The negative feedback - and, well, the positive as well.

Every one of us knows many artists who produce lots and lots of crap and for some reason still have a large fanbase. I think it will always remain one of those eternal mysteries of life why stories with bad spelling and horrible grammar mistakes, songs with no noteworthy poetical value and movies promoting very questionable moral values become popular, but it does happen and we have to deal with the fact that there are many people who are unable to see obvious artistic flaws. Which means, actually, that there are many people out there whose positive feedback isn't worth much.

The Value of Feedback

It seems feedback per se doesn't say anything about the quality of an artwork. It depends on its giver just too much: What does this person like? What education did this person have? What IQ and EQ does this person have? What did this person experience in life? How much does this person understand about your art genre? How much experience has this person had with your art genre? How carefully did this person examine your artwork? May this person have been distracted? May this person have had an especially good or especially bad day? And so on ...

It's impossible to say whether the feedback you give and receive is good or bad. While personally I claim to be able to tell if a work of prose is good or bad and to be completely unable to tell if a work of music is good or bad my feedback for prose can be rushed or I just might not like a particular type of story whereas my simple, uneducated "I like it" or "I don't like it" might be exactly what the composer wants to know and thus helpful.

I do believe, actually, that you can measure the artistic quality of an artwork more or less objectively. In a former post I wrote that "good art makes maximum use of the tools specific to its genre." Based on this firm conviction, I can say that, for me, there is art that is objectively good or bad. However, sometimes we just don't like good works of art and prefer bad ones. This is our right as individuals with a very subjective taste. And usually our subjectivity overshadows our rational thinking.

This is why I believe that feedback givers are never right or wrong. They are just people with their subjective perception of your artwork, influenced by their life and surroundings. Feedback is no more and no less than the expression of a subjective perspective, maybe with a pinch of a faint attempt to be objective.

Personally I try not to take feedback - positive as well as negative - for more than it is. I decide for myself if a story is a success or not. - What about you? How do you approach the feedback you receive? Do you try to be objective when giving feedback? I’m eager to learn about your experiences!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.