The Case Against Harsh Critique
My design school critiques have blended together into a greatest hits collection, boiled off to form a condensed bouillon brick of moments. B slammed his metal clipboard to the floor after half the class fell asleep in lecture. H swung my peer’s labored-over project back and forth, cackling at its phallic shape. M idly sketched some dinosaur heads from memory while recounting his own college days, and the sheet was so adept we seriously considered framing it.
One critique stands out, a stutter in time, a Spring semester communication design project. I painstakingly visualized a journey through Pittsburgh with dots of varying sizes and set them into a pie-like arrangement. It seemed clever, clever enough that when my professor paused to consider it, I got excited. I prepared for praise, rising up on my tailbone so I might properly bask in its warmth.
She grimaced, unpinned my piece and turned it so it faced the wall, calling it a mess, saying it hurt her eyes.
I don’t remember the rest of the critique. I was so livid I was shaking, holding back tears. This professor was infamous for her harsh critiques, and had made three-quarters of my class cry by graduation.
I was surprised to find out later that she was actually a kind person. She was involved in the local community and cared about sustainability long before it was cool. When my childhood dog died senior year, she sat and squeezed my shoulder in the hallway.
She later explained that it was her job to help us form a tough skin. She wanted to teach us that critique was not personal. The wider creative world would have harsher things to say, and she didn’t want them breaking our spirits.
Well. I’ve been berated by art directors, famous venture capitalists and CEOs, Goodreads and Amazon reviewers—none of them matched her ‘candor’. Whenever I receive harsh critique, I always think of her, visions of my classmates fleeing the classroom after her verdict, already sobbing.
By the time I was fourteen, I craved harsh critique. It was the path to improvement, and tough love was the greatest sign of respect. Disdain was better than silence, because if something was bad enough to piss a viewer off, it at least had a point of view.
I sprinted towards arguments and perfection long into my professional design career. My vocabulary expanded, I became accustomed to making changes based on crit takedowns as well as parrying it, justifying my creative decisions.
As the years passed, I began to think of my other professor, soft-spoken, the one who left behind perfect dino drawings as detritus, like crumbs from a snack, who could draw literally anything with an inch of blunt crayon.
“I used to tear work off the walls in critique. I would throw drawings on the floor and walk on them, the paper would be covered in dusty footprints,” he told us. “Now that I’m older, I just don’t think that’s the way to get good work out of people.”
We considered this kindheartedness an endearing eccentricity, like K’s pre-Jobs-ian wardrobe of exclusively black turtlenecks, or V’s inability to leave a pen top unchewed.
Fifteen years later, I have the experience to deliver truly crushing takedowns of all sorts of creative projects, strategies, portfolios, and stories. I try to never do so. Harsh delivery now strikes me as a hallmark of inexperience, insecurity, or PTSD. Besides being borderline abusive, harsh critique chips at the one thing a creative really needs to succeed in their career: perseverance.
Everyone warns writers that the path is filled with rejections. I was surprised to learn most of my hallowed faves are still receiving them, it’s a reality of publishing.
I thought my experience as a designer had honed my defenses, had formed that perfect shell my critical professor had hoped I’d grow. So, I wasn’t worried about rejection. What is a copy-pasted form rejection but another flavor of harsh critique?
Surprise! Navigating life as an artist, a writer, I find rejection to be an et-tu-Brute-surprising blade that pricks my undefended belly more often than I’d like to admit.
I’ve already fielded hundreds of no’s, and some of them sting. Nearly everyone is kind or even encouraging as they reject me, but I’m putting myself out on a platter in a way I do not with design work. It’s me Burt Reynolds-ing on the cold tarnished silver, not some series of buttons I’ve drawn based on user feedback.
The outlets I care about are at least not openly hostile to my lived experience, but the gates are still gated, especially for marginalized folks. Someone still has to say yes if you desire a traditional publishing path, which I do.
Please don’t take this as some trumpet that my work as universally publishable—like I have the nerve, lol!—but lots of good work is rejected. Quality isn’t enough to ensure success. This is what everyone meant, but it’s more comfortable to believe in cause and effect, in a justice of achievement.
Hearing Ocean Vuong speak on our mainstream obsession with conflict-driven plot was when it clicked for me, both in a craft sense and a critical one.
“[I] wanted to find a form that did not require conflict or orchestrated conflict in order to realize a story or characters…life is conflict…Context is conflict. So I was more interested in seeing how individual conflicted contexts interact when they’re next to each other through proximity, like a chemical reaction.”
Harsh critique is manufactured conflict. It is not even twisted kindness, it does not save. Everyone in publishing is already reading towards no. If that alone isn’t discouraging enough, pile on all the things that make writing logistically difficult: the struggle of making an income, a shitty US social safety net, depression, anxiety, a whole ass pandemic, fear of violence, the list goes on and on.
Not writing is the easiest thing in the world. We don’t need to let the gatekeeping spirit possess us in Zoom workshops or in Google Doc line edits. The pressure is already out there and programmed within us.
Vuong recognizes that orchestrated conflict in work is an illusion of choice, the aggressive response to an out-of-control world. Living that same pattern in life is likewise an illusion, armor against the truth that we can’t control it all.
Perseverance itself is conflict, especially for marginalized folks who have to hear the same things from mainstream critics: no one’s going to Google that, I find it alienating, why aren’t you italicizing, write it less gay, the prose smells of garlic and fish sauce.
Voices are winking out before they have a chance to hone themselves into something true, before society can clear a space for them to thrive. Outlasting doubt, clumsiness, micro-aggressions, and rejection is sharpening enough.
Art does not need additional harshness.
This is where harsh critique lovers will dig in. “But work will get shittier if we are soft on quality! The canon of human beauty will suffer!”
We are already suffering. Cruel feedback keeps writers from persevering long enough to write like themselves, to hold on until their voice is a humming crystal singing their particular magic and horror at being alive.
“Then they weren’t tough enough to make it! They didn’t love it enough. Their ardor for the written word was not pure.”
I…hate this. I would rather they make it, I would rather we all have space to make it. I would rather enjoy that honed voice in five years.
If people feel emboldened to commit shitty “craft” out loud—so what? Does a collective ego found in some cultish measure of quality really trounce collective joy?
If critique isn’t harsh, does that mean we all just compliment each others’ work from now on?
…Yes? A little? Is that so terrible? But this framing is facetious in all the wrong ways.
Critique could do more than model the same gatekeeping that destroys creative practices. It could instead provide a glimpse on how a creative can persevere. It should come from a place of, this is how you keep going. This is how you continue working.
Does that mean pulling some punches? Maybe, but it doesn’t mean being less critical in the definitional sense of the word. Critiquing for perseverance might lean positive, towards holy shit, that passage, give me more of THAT—but it also can include this line gets in the way of what I think you’re trying to say, or contradictions in the work.
Critique should push us towards our voice and truth, towards working as ourselves. It should help give us the confidence to stay in this industry until we are good enough to win, and to keep winning once we get there.