When You’re Married to a Critic

I read an article about a million years ago about Joyce Carol Oates.  Her husband, the article said, has never read any of her books.  Also, he’s never gone to any of her lectures.

Depending on my mood, this bit of information leads me to think:  1) What a strange, dysfunctional marriage they must have!  On other, grimmer days, though, I think: 2) Hey!  No wonder they’ve stayed married so long!

“Don’t you want me to be honest?”  That’s what my husband always says after he’s read something I’ve written.  Well, yes, of course, I want him to be honest.  I want him to honestly and truly love everything I’ve ever written and pronounce it as fabulous and perfect and in need of no further work.  How hard is that?

However, this scenario doesn’t always work out as planned.

For the sake of argument, let’s say I take criticism much worse than the average person.  Let’s say I plunge into a brackish sulk when I get bad feedback.  Let’s say I’m a big-time moper who begins to whisper things like, “Well, who died and made you literary king, buster?” and “Jesus, what a pompous, self-important jerk!” and “Who asked you?”

Hours pass.  Ominous silences ensue.  Brooding glances and white-hot glares are aimed like poison arrows.

More hours pass — or days, let’s say.  It begins to occur to me that he might, possibly, have a point.  A crude, childish point, but a point nevertheless.  Eventually, after a long while, we begin to talk.  I see that his criticisms — although shallow and completely insensitive to my needs — may have some merit.  We talk more.

I start to understand more about Joyce Carol Oates.  No wonder she manages to crank out a book every few days; she doesn’t have to work through a towering, frenzied marital blowup every time her husband criticizes her work.  The two of them are too smart for that.

But you work with the relationship you have.  If you ask for criticism, you deal with it.  Eventually, anyway.

How is my husband as a literary critic? I was asked at a recent dinner party.

I looked across the table at my husband and told the truth: “He’s annoyingly good at it.”

It’s just that it takes me awhile to get from annoyingly to good.

(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)

8 comments… add one
  • Cindy Link

    You make me feel lucky, Ruth. My husband considers himself to be ill equipped to critique – yet gushes over every single word I write.  I can’t trust his biased opinion one tiny bit, but it’s nice that SOMEONE gushes!  And then there are the evil truth-tellers in my critique group…

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    I know what you mean.  The gushing is nice till you realize it isn’t always accurate.  But damn!  Criticism is tough, even if you do learn from it.

  • He’s a brave man, isn’t he?

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    He is.  Cowards don’t marry writers.  Which leads to the question: Who do they marry?

  • hi ruth,

    i’m beginning to understand 😉

    we’re so different! i always assume my writing needs a LOT of work and i cherish the person who can help me improve it. you are blessed with that husband of yours. but i assume from this blog entry that you kinda know it. 

  • Steve Link

    Most of my written work consists of text from which I will speak, usually a sermon or similar faith-oriented talk I will be giving.  I do not remember ever asking my spouse for a critique before the performance, but I always experience a sense of loss when I do not receive comments from her after the performance.  It is most frustrating when I have to ask what she thought about it.  If she offerred an honest critique, it would likely result in a debate, and she has little tolerance for debates.  So, instead, she usually offers some affirmation from “fine” to “really good.”  And the truth is, that’s just “fine” with me.  I long ago came to understand that what I really wanted from my spouse was not criticism but approval. 

  • Cowards don’t marry writers…ha! ha!  Even your comments are great.  This is so true.  I feel sorry for my poor husband.  I can’t imagine living with me and my weirdo ways. 

    Great post, Ruth.  Thank goodness I’m just a reader and don’t have to critique you, because I doubt I could ever do it.  I’m happy to stay in the “gushing complimenter” category🙂

  • Jeff Link

    It is a tough, but ultimately useful learning curve.  I have edited my wife’s sermons and she has edited my technical articles and presentations for many years.  Our first learning “opportunity” was the difference between spoken and written: what reads as choppy, speaks as punchy.  Good writing should be invisible and flow, but spoken it often puts listeners to sleep.
    Now that I’m giving presentations, that training in the spoken word has helped.
    Still it has been a tightrope with those unpleasant drops when we slip.  I’m never blunt with critiques.  They are always put forth as “You might …” or “What if you said …”.  Always leaving a way for either of us to walk away and let a suggestion die for a second.
    Being on both ends has helped me learn how to make it work.

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