A Critical New Year

I’ve been asked about my New Year’s Resolution. I generally never give this a decent thought until someone else brings it up (similar to my reactions to questions like, “Are you ready for Christmas?” or “What are you doing for Thanksgiving?”). I’ve always sort of scoffed at the molded system: a calendar devised by people we don’t know, touting traditions that we carry out blindly, bidding us to follow our contemporaries, zombie-like, down the money chute. Yeh, I know. I’m a Scrooge on the outside. But inside, I operate on the premise that celebrating every holiday every day is essential  to wanting to wake up to see what I’ve written on MY calendar. I don’t want flowers on Valentine’s Day. I don’t want a pony for Christmas. I’d rather eat a box of chocolates on an otherwise nondescript Tuesday night and ride 15 different thoroughbreds over the course of a year.

But since I’ve been asked, I think my New Year’s Resolution should be to say what’s on my mind…and to write it. Criticism (not degradation) is a gift. I crave it. I teach my kids to welcome it, plant it, nurture it, and grow it into something beautiful. I encourage their teachers, coaches, and music instructors to deliver it freely to them, out of genuine concern for their futures. I don’t offer consolations like, “Good job!” if the job wasn’t good. I don’t congratulate for poor performances. But when I see a good one, look out. I’ll go to immeasurable, “enough already” lengths to reward it. This is how I raise my own. I think, this year, I’ll move outside my walls with this premise in order to receive more of the reciprocal same for myself. I’m going to stop assuming that no one wants naked honesty. I’m going to take some lessons from those people whom I admire — who have told me, without apology, that something I’ve done has disappointed them, angered them, or otherwise sucked the glaze off a cheap, bland donut. I’m going to leave the sugar in the bowl and give well-meaning, succinctly worded criticism a shot. Who knows? My opinion might matter.

My fears are numerous. Firstly, where do I get off? I don’t have the type of credentials that tend to soften criticism (or that spur people to actually ask me for it). Secondly, I don’t think many people want to hear it (unless it’s about someone else); this is the world in which we live — people only want commendation, not condemnation. Thirdly, as is the case with many women, I am innately a peacekeeper and fight-dodger; I despise conflict (I once locked myself in the bathroom so I wouldn’t have to bear witness to a disagreement between my boss and my co-worker). But, as I have learned, fear is my biggest indicator of success. If I’m afraid to do something, then I must do it.

Until now, I’ve only written book reviews for those books that I admired. But here’s the beauty that I’m anticipating: if I’m honest about something I didn’t enjoy (or about a piece of something I otherwise enjoyed), maybe that author and his or her fans will feel free to be honest with me by offering criticism that will make my work better. Maybe I’ll piss somebody off and get the truth for which I yearn. I’ll be starting by recording my thoughts on Claire Messud’s novel, The Emperor’s Children. See you then.

2 responses to “A Critical New Year

  1. Everybody wants a box of chocolates and a long stem rose. Everybody knows.

    I do love what you say about the critical faculty being a gift to encourage and nurture. It is, after all, to the critical faculty — and not the creative — that we owe our greatest debt for the innovation of fresh forms. Without the critical faculty, there is no artistic creation worthy of the name.

    Said Oscar Wilde.

  2. Everybody? Frankly, I’d rather have the whole rose bush. One slender, elegant bloom is an empty, obsolescent compliment, while a thick and horny, amputated and thorny, bare-root plant holds the promise of enduring criticism and innumerable blooms.

    That Oscar was somethin’ else. So are you. Thanks.

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