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Terrible Tips Tuesday: Don’t You Get It?

April 20, 2010

This last weekend there was a slight controversy over the superhero film “Kick-Ass.”  Venerable critic Roger Ebert savaged the movie for its violence and blood, especially given that most of the participants are children.  In response, venerable Internet guy Harry Knowles said that Ebert didn’t “get” the movie.  My take is that if I don’t “get” the amusement of kids slaughtering people and being beaten to a bloody pulp I’m more than OK with that.

Anyway, the concept of “you don’t get it” is one that’s often used in criticism of any art form.  The idea is to imply that you’re stupid or ignorant or out of touch with the latest fashions–or sometimes all three.  A lot of times this reasoning seems to be the final fallback position to defend a piece of crap.  I’ve seen it many times in writing critique groups where someone who’s received a bad review will say, “You just don’t get it!”  Sometimes they’ll go further by saying you don’t get it because you’re dumb or because you’re a guy or because you’re too old or because you’re too young or because you don’t like vampires.  My response would be, “Maybe, but I know shit when I step in it.”

There is some validity to the concept of not getting something.  It’s true that I am a guy and I don’t like vampires, so if you post some kind of vampire chick lit story then obviously I’m not going to be overly entertained by it.  And if that’s all I were reviewing it based on then it would be fine to dismiss my criticisms.  But it’s also possible that even a guy who doesn’t like vampires can have some objective opinions that are valid.  Just because I don’t like vampires doesn’t mean I can’t spot illogical story development, plot holes, cliches, and other things like that.  A writer receiving a review should never throw the baby out with the bath water (to use a cliche!) by dismissing someone’s criticism because they aren’t in the target audience.  If anything, someone who isn’t in your target audience is often in a better position to see what you might have missed because they aren’t reading it solely for entertainment.

Really in my opinion no one in a critique group should ever throw out the “You don’t get it!” excuse.  It is common sense that not every story can please every reader simply because of our differing backgrounds and moral sensibilities.  Still, when you use that line to me it makes you sound like a sullen kid, harrumphing and tramping up to his room because Mom said to clean up his room or finish his peas or something.  The best thing is to say, “Thanks, I’ll take that under advisement.”  Then in private you can dismiss it if you want.  Of course that’s really hard to do because as writers we’re emotionally invested in the story and even if it is dreck we usually think it’s pure gold.  Certainly in this case do as I say and not as I do because I’m as prickly as anyone when it comes to criticism, if not more so.  (For instance if you say that you’re pricklier than me I’ll say, “No way!  I’m a lot pricklier than you!  Wanna fight about it?”)  What you don’t want to do is burn bridges because a group doesn’t get something because you might change your mind in years to come.  Right now there’s a whole generation of kids screaming that their parents don’t get the Jonas Brothers or Justin Bieber or Hannah Montana or whatever but I’m willing to bet in five years those kids will change their tunes.  Especially if you’re young you have to realize you don’t know everything and that sometimes the old fogies really do get it because they’ve been there themselves.

At the same time, reviewers need to make sure that they are being as objective as possible.  If you’re a Christian, you shouldn’t go off on someone because they have characters having sex out of wedlock or homosexuals or swearing or anything like that because they aren’t writing a Christian story.  Just like I shouldn’t say how idiotic I think most vampires are if someone posts a vampire story.  (What I’m more likely to say is, “Yawn.  Another vampire story.”  Or, “You have a teenage girl meeting a sexy young vampire and they fall in love?  How original!”)  When critiquing you need to try and leave the personal biases out of it and focus on whether things make sense and if there are any grammatical problems or things like that.  Like if I post a baseball story there’s no point telling me that sports are stupid.  There is a point to saying that in the seventh inning I have the home team getting four outs.  The former is useless and will just provoke an angry response while the latter is helpful and will help me fix an oversight.  So when I’m reading a vampire story I should try to put aside my personal biases and just focus on the more objective, quantifiable stuff.  Instead of saying, “Great, another vampire story” I should point out that cutting someone with a spear blade isn’t as effective as stabbing them with the spear.

If we could do that on both ends then we’d probably never hear that old whine of “You don’t get it!” except when someone’s at their wit’s end for justifying why a story is as awesome as they think it is.  But then again this is the real world and so some amount of prejudice is always likely to remain.  It’s up to the writer who receives the critique to sift through what isn’t helpful to find what is helpful.  And there are always going to be some things that we just aren’t going to get no matter how hard we try.  Here’s some things I don’t get and probably never will:

  • Vampires
  • Romance novels
  • Cormac McCarthy
  • Quentin Tarantino movies
  • Frank Miller
  • American Idol
  • Poetry
  • Jane Austen (and pretty much the rest of 19th Century literature)
  • Modern art
  • Rap/Hip hop
  • Country music
  • Most anime

Any of those things you can probably go on and on lecturing me about them and I still won’t ever get it.  If you hector me enough I might pretend to understand, but I’ll never really care in the way you do.  And you’ll never probably care about things I like either.  To each his/her own.

Thursday will be another entry about something book-related.


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One Comment
  1. I agree with you, I think. I once received some critiques that all were helpful except for the ones that went on and on and ended with, “But I’m not a big fan of women’s fiction so it may be just me.”

    I would’ve completely took every suggestion or bash this person gave me but when they ended it with that…I was more likely to think they just wasted my time. I didn’t actually think they didn’t “get” it…I just thought, why did they bother then?

    I’ve never been able to honestly critique something I wouldn’t read in my regular life. It bores me then so therefore, why would I expect a story I’m critiquing wouldn’t bore me too?

    Also, I think when critiquers end up admitting that they’re not a fan of certain genres but still critique, they leave the writer a chance to dismiss any suggestions from that critiquer. I believe any suggestion is good advice. Even if the comment was, “Oh another boy vampire meets mortal girl. How original!” At least she knows she/he needs to put something original in that overdone story. So instead of the old excuse, “You just don’t get it!” Maybe we should all realize that any suggestion or critique is useful because we’re all just writers trying to tell a better story.

    Oh and Mutt? I love vampires and romance. I have never read a Jane Austen. (I know, you’re shocked, aren’t you?) I only like American Idol when they’re auditioning. NASCAR? I love it! But only because when I was in Okinawa, Japan, all I could watch on Sundays was NASCAR. It played all day and it was the only channel I got. Now, it’s just an excuse to dig in deep for my redneck roots with a beer while the laundry is being done.

    Good blog today! I get it! 😉

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