Musings: Drawing a line between what you like and what is likeable.

Many times, I have been faced with the heinous task of giving my opinion on something I had no opinion about— something that didn’t quite catch my fancy or just did not do it for me. Like a passing stranger asking if her make-up is well done, or a neighborhood acquaintance begging me to assure her that her newly made hair is the bomb. Each time such occasion presented itself, I would find myself straining to look for that one thing that appealed to me, to my senses, my beliefs and my best judgement. Of course, I wasn’t going to lie that the make-up was perfect or the hair was glorious when in fact it wasn’t— I would instead catch myself saying, “you are beautiful, but I think the lipstick could use a little dab”, or “your hairdresser did try her best but I think it could have been better.” I wouldn’t know how these people felt with my near-honesty, but I think that so far, this has always worked out…

But when it comes to things like art: like whose reading style you prefer and whose reading style you understand, a little more tact is required. You almost always know where you stand and you don’t want to jeopardize that stance. You either like an artists type of art or you don’t. Yes, when you are naturally objective, you are able to love or not love an artist and still like or not like the works their hands set forth. But how do you convey this clear stance, especially when it’s unfavorable, without sounding rash? How do you assess something you don’t understand? Shakespeare was an exemplary writer but I don’t like his books— I find them too technical, too not-my-style, but this is just my opinion; it would never take away from his brilliance and the pace he has set for so many of us budding writers and even the already established ones. The book titled the God of small things has been on my table for over a year, and I have not gone past the first ten or so pages. Everyone I know, who is a brilliant writer or a healthy reader or both has preached the gospel of the exquisiteness of this book but I am yet to see it; I find it difficult to make it through Arundhati’s story telling— but again, this is just me. These writers are people I have quoted in several pieces, people whose excerpts have inspired long hours of thought-provoking and eureka moments in my writing life; but that has been that. Maybe it has just been me not having enough time or enough patience to see the beauty in their something-that-doesn’t-work-for-me, I just know that even if I had no time, I will finish an Adichie or a Grisham novel in less than a week. And this says a lot, for me…

I think that we all have writing styles that sway us, people we love to read from and people who we will be satisfied just hearing other people quote and that is fine. Even as writers in our own circles, however much or little we think of ourselves, there will be a portion of our audience that will think the world of us and what we do, and another portion that will not. It is just what it is. Yes, there is a message in every piece of art, but that message is not meant for everybody. If you don’t understand the message, then the story is not for you. Simple, yes? Well, not quite. Because it is one thing to buy a book or read a post and not like it and another thing to be given such book or post and saddled with the responsibility of giving the writer your honest opinion. You can move on from the former but not the latter.

While writing my dissertation, I remember giving my personal tutor 5000words more than the the required count. I was clueless about what to remove. That work was something I had put in a lot of sweat and sleepless nights to get together, and I wasn’t going to murder it with my own hands. Wasn’t gonna happen! So I pushed it to him hopelessly and left him to do the hard work. I know it must have been a lot of hard work for him, because he had about five other dissertations from his original supervisees (if there is a word like that), or even more, to vet and give his opinion on. I knew for a fact that a lot of my sentences were convoluted and all that sad stuff that happens to writers. So it would have been natural if he gave me an opinion based on whether he liked my style or not rather than whether the work was good or not— because he is not an editor and he was not my supervisor. But guess what? He was excellent. His feedback came in something like: Hello Rofiah, you will forgive me for having murdered your work. It is a brilliant piece but I have had to cut out a lot of words to fit the word count and also make it fluffier and more fluid. It was a big pain deciding on what was best to take out, but I think it is better now. By the way, you did a wonderful job.” What could have been better? He gave me a prettier version of what I wrote not an excerpt of what he would have written, and I was amazed at his restraint. He changed my life radically with that one moderate and thoughtful feedback. We all could use a Richard in our lives.

These days, I find myself increasingly in Richards shoes. And it is a big honor. But because I am not trained to give objective opinions on these things, I often struggle with myself on not imposing my own preferences (I once totally overhauled a friend’s piece because I didn’t like the style! What a shame eh?!); and I have seen lots of acclaimed editors that do same. However, being under Richards tutelage, amongst many other life experiences has taught me that life will put you in positions you have not asked for and you must own up to the task. The trick is being able to draw the line between: I don’t like this style of writing and this is in fact a very brilliant piece of nothing! Sometimes you will not have the choice to like or not like the style, but you must have an opinion about the quality of the work. When we find ourselves in delicate positions where our opinions are sought on something as fragile as a piece of art, we must reckon that someones heart is on the line, forget what we will have written in the person’s shoes, and remind ourselves that what we say or don’t say can be the one defining moment— for good or bad, in the life of such artist. So, we must tread with care; such that, we tell the bitter truth but sprinkle it with a lot of icing. Tell the hard truth in a way that makes it soft enough to chew.

Have a brilliant week lovelies ❤️❤️.

© The Short Black Girl, 2018.


6 thoughts on “Musings: Drawing a line between what you like and what is likeable.

  1. Seating in the Editor’s chair isn’t easy; and anyone new to the seat always has these existential questions.

    Truth is, your style, preferences, influences and idiosyncrasies will always color your judgements.

    You can try to be objective by creating guidelines and templates. Initially, you might need to read twice – first as a reader, and answer the question “did I enjoy reading this?”; secondly as an editor “does this story work? Is the narrative style fitting? Is it clear and concise? Are the word usage appropriate? How can it be better? and a host of other questions.

    When you do this, you can give honest, non sugar coated, specific, clear and concise feedback. It would be objective, but never free of your subjectivity- your taste, preference, likes etc.

    When giving feedback avoid sugar coating it. It’s not helpful most times. Rather, state what you liked or what worked and then what didn’t work or can be improved on. Then deliver it in a factual way, with as much empathy as needed.

    And your work is done.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. This is very helpful Topaz, thank you.

      And oh no, when I said deliver the truth with “icing”, i did not mean tell lies or tall truths; I meant, present it in a way that makes it easier to digest, at least, as best as you possibly can. Simply put, just as you said, be empathetic in your delivery.

      I bet your comment will give a lot of pointers to people interested in this topic. And for me, I am sure I will do even better when next I find myself sitting in an editors chair because of the helpful tips you have proferred.

      I appreciate you doc. You know this! ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I totally agree on specific sentiments especially when reading someone’s piece of work or when put in a position to critic or praise. Totally very stressing. I have always found a good way to be diplomatic in critiquing people’s work and also making them feel they are creatives who can always do better.

    I have always found that I enjoy the person’s piece a lot more when I try to visualize myself in the person’s shoes and think as the person thought. That way, I find the creative side to every piece and sometimes, I find myself dabbling into that style…seeing if it is something I can create as well.

    Just like I hear that Shakespeare is great and I think he was amazing, I sometimes do not understand his works but I love it nonetheless, and I have tried to emulate it – it didn’t work [lol] and gurl, you are so not alone on books that lay in one corner of my shelf breathing the everyday dust and the others that lay close to my bed, because I have read them countless times – again and again.

    At the end of the day, not all form of art will appease to the soul.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are spot on with your comment sistur!

      I like the style you adopt when critiquing people’s works. I imagine that putting yourself in the writers shoes can help you understand the writers ploy and efforts better. I think I will try this one sometime.

      And like you said, yes, diplomacy is key. And it’s even better when we are able to put in one genuine good word before breaking the not-so-yummy truth about a person’s work. In the end, how the person receives this feedback will be a function of how open he/she is to alternative opinions. Sometimes we write something so so good but it turns out that other people don’t see it that way; and sometimes, we write something meh, and our audience loves the heartbeat out of it. We may never fully understand these things, but one thing stands: some writing styles will eternally appeal better to us than others. And that is really just that.

      I have so missed your thoughtful comments. Thank you for leaving a thought sis. I appreciate you. ❤️❤️

      Liked by 1 person

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