Listen Without Prejudice Dept.


Further notes on the posts from earlier this week. If our instincts for what kinds of advice to accept or reject are based on our tastes, how can we be certain our tastes are better than someone else's? (This was Matt's question, but it is also mine.)

The way I think about it, it's not a matter of our tastes being "better" than the next guy in the same way that we can, say, achieve a higher bowling score or a lower golf score. What matters is being self-aware — knowing why we have the preferences we do, and being conscious of the ends to which we use them.

Case in point. I started recently reading Proust for the first time, courtesy of the new translations Penguin commissioned. It's slow going, but so worth it; there's more on any one page of Proust than there is in many whole books by other people. But I also know the point of the exercise isn't to have something to put on a stick and wave like a flag. I don't read Proust so I can turn to the guy next to me and sneer at him for reading the Vampire Hunter D novels, not least of which because my collection of Vampire Hunter D novels probably rivals his. Those books satisfy an entirely different set of needs, and to try and put those needs into some kind of stack ranking is like complaining that popcorn isn't a very good lubricant.

When it comes to your own work, though, I find there's no automatic way to assume you know what's best for it. I've fallen out of love with the idea that the singular visionary knows best, if only because there are so many self-described singular visionaries who managed only to alienate those around them by having it their way or the highway.

George Lucas thought he knew what was best for his creations, but he was wrong; his work flowered most when he was surrounded by people who provided him with evolutionary pressure. Once he surrounded himself with yes men, everything that had been interesting about Star Wars vanished.

If someone comes to you and says, "You are doing a creative disservice to yourself," it is easy to blow them off, whether you're an amateur or an old hand. It's tough to listen without prejudice. Maybe it ought to be; maybe knowing how to do that is one of the real, unsung tests of separation for genuine creators from dilettantes: knowing how to find and take the advice that they need. In short, knowing how, and where, to ask for help.


Tags: criticism critics writers writing




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