Criticism – dishing it out and getting it back

NO ONE likes criticism. Even the most committed self effacer secretly winces inside when they receive negative feedback. That’s why we generally precede any unflattering critique with apologetic preambles if delivering it in person. Unadulterated criticism, stripped of all politeness, is usually just a row.

The reluctance with which we receive criticism is matched only by the relish with which we hand it out. And few enjoy dishing it out as much as journalists. We usually, especially in print, have the luxury of dispensing criticism without being in the presence of the intended recipient. Hence it tends to be more blunt and excoriating.

Some in the profession are employed solely to analyse, criticise and, on the odd occasion, praise cultural, culinary and consumer works. The fact practitioners of this strain of the profession are called critics and not praisers or lauders tells its own tale. Yet despite being part of a trade that has professionalised criticism, some journalists appear exceedingly ill-equipped to deal with it when it comes their way.

Times food critic Giles Coren responding to an unflattering appraisal of his column from a female reader over Twitter with “go fuck yourself you barren old hag” presents itself as an acutely apt case study. Coren’s outburst (not his first obscene online paroxysm) has been met with a mixture of condemnation, hand wringing and, in some quarters, encouragement.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of his invective, the biggest shock for me was that someone so widely published possessed such a low critical tolerance. Anyone who publishes on a regular basis has to develop a thick skin. Whenever I make a mistake that slips past the subs, or sometimes even when I haven’t, I know there will be a horde of commenters on the site queuing up to haughtily point it out.

This is usually followed by a slew of comments implying that I am congenitally inept and holding up the error as concrete evidence of a drastic decline in educational standards precipitated by the abolition of (the appositely named) grammar schools. It is deflating, but I personally find it best to use these experiences as a spur to ensure I don’t leave myself open to those scenarios again.

In the past I have had to dissuade colleagues from engaging with their online detractors. It is always best not to engage. Even, as was the case with one reporter, if they are being panned for leaving something out of a story that the critic would have seen included if they had bothered to read past the third par before firing off their gleeful missive.

It is better just to suck it up and move on. As, given the amount of criticism we ladle out in the course of our jobs, it would be grotesquely hypocritical not to tolerate getting a little back.

This piece first appeared at Ovidus.

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