On Criticism

One of the great flaws of man is the inability to turn inward. When Socrates famously said that 'the unexamined life is not worth living,' few paid attention. Even today, most ignore this advice, and fewer still heed its wisdom.

We've developed such a profound aversion to criticism, and the effects of that aversion come at a huge expense. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby - the same one we all read in high school- is a stroke of literary genius. Masterfully crafted, it stands as the pinnacle of the art of literature for its structure, its form, its prose. Its very sentences seem to be an ode to sentence-writing. In fact, the sentences within are so beautiful at times that one feels like a voyeur, watching the author toy with and make love to the words he so adores.

Here's the thing about Gatsby, though: it was fiercely edited. In a 2002 essay, Susan Bell offers some insight into the editing process. Fitzgerald's editor, Max Perkins, had this to say in response to having read the first revision: 

Among a set of characters marvelously palpable and vital- I would know Tom Buchanan if I met him on the street and would avoid him- Gatsby is somewhat vague. The reader's eyes can never quite focus on him, his outlines are dim. Now everything about Gatsby is more or less a mystery i.e. more or less vague, and this may be somewhat of an artistic intention, but I think it is mistaken .

This, of course, was a significant problem. A story has a major flaw in its execution if the title character lacks... well, anything, let alone the precision that connects the character to the reader.

How did Fitzgerald respond? He fixed it, ultimately confessing that the vagueness stemmed from his not understanding Gatsby well enough himself. He then spent a lot of time getting to know his character, doing more research, until he found that he knew Gatsby 'better than I know my own child.' 

In another example, Bell cites a second major flaw that Perkins pointed out: that of _clumping_ . The author had 'clumped' together massive bits of biographical information, resulting in a sorely out-of-place jumble of words amidst the elegant backdrop of prose that permeated the story. On Perkins' suggestion, Fitzgerald began to take the clumps and disperse them sparingly throughout the story, rewriting until the biographical information matched the tone and concision of the rest of the book. 

These were but two of the problems with the original manuscript that eventually became the masterpiece we know today- there were many more. It was only through fantastically hard work- and rework - that the true Gatsby emerged. 

We often think that the work we do, the person we are is impeccable. When we are asked, or when we simply think of ourselves, of course, we know that we are deeply flawed. In theory, then, we recognize the need to revise our work, our selves. In practice, we often take umbrage at the suggestion that we could be doing something better, that we could be a better writer, parent, designer, cook, or friend, which only impedes our ability to reach our true potential. 

How did Fitzgerald react to the suggestions of his editor? By standing his ground, insisting that his work was as grand as his concept? In a letter to Perkins, Fitzgerald said: 

Max, it amuses me when praise comes in on the 'structure' of the book- because it was you who fixed up the structure, not me. And don't think I'm not grateful for all that sane and helpful advice about it.

Without Perkins, it's anyone's guess as to what Gatsby would have become. Fortunately, we don't have to imagine that scenario, simply because he recognized criticism for what it was: not a personal attack, but rather a gesture of love and respect from someone whom he greatly admired. 

Perhaps we all have a Gatsby inside of us. Being human, we have the luxury of defining our own definition of success. As a parent, for example, I want my daughter to exhibit, above all else, compassion and curiosity. When I see those traits emerge in her, I consider myself a success. Whatever your parameters, bringing to fruition the masterpiece of living is our most ambitious- and, ironically, our most attainable- goal. To realize that masterpiece, we must be willing to edit. To revise, to rework, to consider carefully the criticisms of those we admire, and to incorporate those truths creates a limitless well of potential. Don't just accept criticism. Embrace it. Use it. In the end, you will be a better you.

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