Washington Irving’s “Banquet” Approach to Criticism

sleepy-hollow32Handling criticism, especially in this age when you can post something online and can be criticized by anyone in the world, is a challenge. A lot of people advocate listening to critic’s complaints to learn how to improve your work, but Washington Irving is humorously, false-apologetically opposed to that line of thought. His kiss-off to the second volume of his short story collection (full text here) first thanks the critics for their good intentions and generosity, then explains why he doesn’t follow their advice:

He [the author] was soon brought to a stand by the contrariety of excellent counsel. One kindly advised him to avoid the ludicrous; another to shun the pathetic; a third assured him to leave narrative alone; while a fourth declared that he had a very pretty knack at turning a story, and was really entertaining when in a pensive mood, but was grievously mistaken if he imagined himself to possess the spirit of humor.

Thus perplexed by the advice of his friends, who each in turn closed some particular path but left him all the world beside to range in, he found that to follow all their counsels would, in fact, be to stand still.

Irving makes an excellent point here, that critics’ opinions often don’t line up, and paying too much attention to the reception of your works can be a hindrance to their creation. If critics point out all the things you shouldn’t do, writers have to focus on the positive if they are going to make progress.

He then goes on to introduce a brilliant metaphor, that writing something for publication is like preparing a banquet:

Few guests sit down to a varied table with an equal appetite for every dish. One has an elegant horror of a roasted pig; another holds a curry or a devil in utter abomination; a third cannot tolerate the ancient flavor of venison and wildfowl; and a fourth, of truly masculine stomach, looks with sovereign contempt on those knickknacks, here and there dished up for the ladies. Thus each article is condemned in its turn; and yet, amidst this variety of appetites, seldom does a dish go away from the table without being tasted and relished by some one or other of the guests.”

It’s interesting that it’s considered rude to criticize someone’s cooking, but not someone’s writing. Maybe because bad writing wastes your time while bad cooking still nourishes you (as long as it doesn’t make you sick). Nonetheless, taking criticism lightly is probably a good thing… I’ve noticed over my time posting fiction and art on the internet, that people that don’t like your work are always more motivated to comment than the (perhaps silent majority?) who think your work is okay or even good. I like Washington Irving’s conception of writing as preparing a meal because it suggests that creative writing is always a productive act, and even if the product isn’t the greatest, the fact is that once you write something, it exists.


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