The Mannerly Art of Critique

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Title: The Mannerly Art of Critique
Creator: Peg Robinson
Date(s): 1997
Medium: meta
Fandom: Multifandom
External Links: Trekiverse, Archived version
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Essay posted by Peg Robinson in 1997 that explained and clarified the concept of public critique in the usenet. The essay acts as the foundation for the rules of critique for many fandoms to this day.

The essay is currently posted to ASC monthly as part of the FAQ and other documents and is maintained by Stephen Ratliff.

Peg Robinson's disclaimer: "Distribute freely."

For additional context, see Timeline of Concrit & Feedback Meta.

Written in Response

See The Mannerly Art of Disagreement.

Robinson's Comments

Robinson commented on this essay at ...there are few het romance stories that read like good slash, and I don't know why. in late January 1998.

... for going on three bloody years now I have been trying to figure out a way to help this group get involved in the kinds of thinking and interaction I honestly think would be usefull [sic] and practically managable [sic] in this forum. I've posted messages, done behind the scenes crit of others' work, I've had exchanges both public and private regarding lit theory. I presented a bloody-long essay on crit, having asked the group if they wanted to *discuss* crit issues, presented it *as a discussion piece*, requested folks to comment and debate. Damned thing took me about a week to write. What happened? It got accepted in one gulp, and I ended up being asked if it could become part of the FAQ, and NO ONE DISCUSSED CRIT. I have turned my mind inside out, upside down, and backwards trying to figure out a constructive thing I could do, that didn't involve making myself a martyr-saint with a nasty little ersatz halo and a pile of reading and crit work the size of Mount Everest, and an ugly little desk in the middle of the ng where I would play Teacher.

I do not have enough fondness for playing Teacher. Not when I cannot see the faces of the class. Not when I can't pace the feedback to the individual. Not when the job is done in public, and depends on playing stupid, unappealing, and inappropriate games with my "status" and "experience" and "respected position" on this ng.[1]

Opening Paragraphs

The essay is quite long. This is an excerpt:

Distribute freely. The more folks who know how to give and take crit ethically, humanely, and usefully, the better.

One of the things I was beginning to suspect just watching the dialogues go by on the newsgroup has been confirmed reading the responses to my query about a crit essay. I thought maybe folks were scaring themselves with the idea that crit was some fabulous, arcane pastime which could only be done well by experts with occult knowledge. You know -- big-time woooo-woooo stuff? The first thing I want to say is that it isn't that way -- not for the person who hopes to crit, or for the person who wants her work critiqued. Yes, there are useful concepts you can pick up, there's vocabulary that comes in handy. The more you practice critiquing and being critiqued the more broad, flexible, and complex your understanding of written material will be. You'll develop a better idea of what makes things work, and what makes them fail, and you'll be able to be more precise. I suppose that, so far as it goes, that's the arcane side of the thing. But you don't have to be a hoary old vet of years of classes to be a perceptive and helpful critic, and you don't have to go around with your head hung low, yours eyes to the ground, and a "Sorry, but I don't know much" on your lips to be a participant in a crit environment. You don't have to have been sanctified, or have achieved enlightenment and been released from the wheel of birth and rebirth before you can safely allow yourself to face the rigors of being critiqued.

First off, you'll never get that 'woooo-woooo' arcana if you always sit things out on the sidelines and never take part yourself. Second, and far more important, in an environment like ASC most of the readers already have a much better understanding of written material than they are giving themselves credit for, and most of the writers are more than capable of listening to people's observations, and applying them practically to their own work. Most of you know darned good and well when a piece of material seems disorganized and poorly presented, you know when a stretch of dialogue is vivid, believable and revealing, you know when a character seems to jump off the page -- and when a character seems wooden and artificial. You know when a story's chronology is pretty clear to you -- even when for some reason the writer has chosen to jump around in the time line -- and you also know when, no matter how simple the presentation of time is, you still end up badly confused as to what happened when. You know when you find yourself being shoved into so many of the characters' minds so fast that you end up confused and dizzy, you know when the pace of the story seems jarringly uneven, or way too fast, or way too slow, or slow or fast in all the wrong places. You know when a story seems well balanced, with enough of everything it needs, and all the bits and pieces landing in the right places to do the most good -- and you also know when there seem to be missing elements, or when the structure is lopsided, with too much time and attention given to one set of elements, not enough to others, and the whole thing assembled in ways and patterns that are lumpy, bumpy and unattractive to you.

It Was Used as a Guide at Other Mailing Lists

Taking Robinson's request to "distribute freely," other mailing lists used this essay as a guide. One was VenicePlace. Another was Critical Edge.

From comments by a mod from Critical Edge, the Highlander list, shortly after this list was created:

We've gotten a question about this offlist, and want to address it here.

"The Mannerly Art of Critique" is a document that has been around for quite some time in the newsgroups where Mary Ellen and I started reading and critiquing fan fiction. We're both used to it, to the point of forgetting that there are things in it with which we don't necessarily agree. We apologize for not checking it more carefully.

In general, it is an excellent guide for how to have critical discussions without degenerating into personal attacks. It is also a piece of material that we didn't want to lift entire chunks from wholesale, nor did we want to rewrite it; further, the entire document is phrased as suggestions, not as hard-and-fast rules.

To address the specific question we were asked:

"The Mannerly Art of Critique" contains the following:

>> 1. Only crit those who have INVITED crit, or who have given you permission when you ask.<<

This is *not* policy on this list. We consider the very act of having made a piece of fanfiction available as both invitation and permission to critique; no specific permission is necessary.

It may be necessary for Mary Ellen and I, or for this list as a whole, to write an internal guide for mannerly critique that we can refer list members to. Any questions about "The Mannerly Art of Critique" or Macedon's "The Mannerly Art of Disagreement" can be addressed to Mary Ellen or I, either on or off list.

Thank you. Laura J. Valentine, Critical Edge Listadmin #2 [2]

Related Links


  1. ^ Best Stories About People You Don't Like (January 20, 1998)
  2. ^ Laura J. Valentine at Critical Edge, October 27, 2000