The latest trends in conferences seems to be critiques. No longer am I just expected to sit on a panel, give a workshop, and do pitch appointments. Now I’m also expected to read material ahead of time and meet the author in person for a face-to-face critique. And so far I’m hating every minute of it. Critiques are difficult for writers in the best of circumstances, but done with an agent you presumably want to impress and in person (when it’s difficult to hide your reaction), I suspect that more often than not they’re a recipe for disaster.
During a recent series of critiques at least one author was no less than hostile. So much so that I stopped the critique in the middle, handed her material back to her, and suggested that she read it on her own time. With every comment/suggestion I made she was argumentative and condescending. If I suggested she explain something further, she implied (through tone only) that maybe I was stupid for not understanding. As the conversation went on she got angrier and angrier, and by the time she left she suggested that quite possibly I wasn’t worldly enough for her work.
I know I’m not a soft and cuddly person, but I don’t think I’m an evil witch either. My impression of a critique is that you’re not there so that I can simply sit and praise you. You’re there because you really want to know what you can do to make your work stronger and, more important, make it marketable to a publisher. I also assume that you’re asking to have a critique with me because you respect my 15 years of experience both as an agent and editor and truly want to know my professional opinion of your work. Does that mean you should take everything I say as gospel? No way. In fact, as with everything, I recommend that you feel free to always get a second opinion. However, I do expect that you’ll listen respectfully to my comments with an open mind. That you’ll at least consider what I’m saying and why I’m saying it. I don’t do critiques as a way to tear down writers. My purpose is to try to help.
Maybe I go about things wrong, but during this particular event at least two authors were hostile and angry with me when our time was up. I really think they expected to sit down and hear me gush about their work and ideas and hand over a contract on the spot. Instead I told them both the little changes I thought they could make to strengthen their work, and the larger, more global problems. The real shame is that I wasted my time. I sat for more than an hour making notes on chapters and thinking carefully about what needed work. I know those pages ended up in the trash.