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Learn how to handle what critics opine

By Lucas Wafula | October 24th 2015

NAIROBI: Any writers who have been reading the Literary Discourse must be thinking they are in the wrong place. Some might be thinking about giving up writing, what with the negative energy that has been flowing all around! There are those who have declared Kenyan writing, non-existent! Others have said the writers are not worth the attention we give them. While at it, they have slammed editors and the work they produce with the writers. Trash! Useless! Don’t waste your time reading, they say.

If you stopped reading the moment you encountered these pessimists, you might have given up writing. However, if you kept on reading, then you might have realised that these critics, whose criticism sometimes tends to be personal attacks, have little or nothing to offer. They simply hate and they should not discourage or stop your writing. On a more positive note, one of these critics dismissed Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust, yet it ended up winning this year’s TextBook Centre Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature! It is highly acclaimed elsewhere.

Writing as a creative process requires a lot of input from the author. Writing even the simplest of books is not an easy venture. It saps the energy out of the writer, and it is extremely sad that sometimes our critics do not consider, or selectively choose to avoid, this fact. They hardly have a word of encouragement for the writer whom they dismiss with every letter they type. Yet any worried writers must wake up to a certain reality.

As a writer, you must accept the fact that the critic — constructive or not — will always be there. Any arena you choose will always have a seat for the critic. Therefore, it might be wise to develop thick skin. There is no way you can avoid this being — call it an occupational hazard.

First, a critic is always within you — that is why you always question the quality of your work: Is this good enough. The critic within may be fair but sometimes, biased. Hence you have to be careful how you deal with this one.

Interact with your work

Second, there will always be a critic from without. This critic from the outside can actually be useful, especially if he or she looks for the presence of quality in your work and eventually helps you improve your work by suggesting ways to improve it. This critic can help you gain readership, as his or her suggestions will cause your work to be liked by more readers.

Sadly, as I pointed out earlier, this critic — the ‘hating’ pessimist — can neuter your creativity and eliminate your readership if readers choose to believe every word he or she utters. The beauty with writing is that the readers will interact with your work hence they will be in a good position to judge. In most cases, the readers will defend their favourite author if his or her work is good. This is the reason you should stop worrying about that ‘hater’ who passes himself or herself off as a critic — this could even be an editor. Even though, you should be realistic. Do not glorify your mistakes — if they exist in your work, step up and make amends. The point is, you must know when to pay attention to a critic and when not to, more so if you know the worth of your work. If it is unnecessary criticism, put up your criticism umbrella and let the negative energy drain off. However, always consider and embrace constructive criticism.

When you are down, it may be wise to remember these words by Theodore Roosevelt: It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, ... the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood ... who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

I must hasten to add that this encouragement is not a way of rubber stamping mediocrity. All writers must aspire to produce quality. Readers love consuming excellence and that is what writers must provide. Always ask yourself, is this the best I could manage? What else can I do to improve my work? Keep your end of the bargain and the readers will keep theirs.

— The writer is a senior literary editor at a publishing firm in Nairobi

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