It is not the critic who counts

I am biased. As a high school English teacher for the past ten years I’ve witnessed brilliance from my colleagues. Not only in teaching the curriculum and caring for teens, but in finding books, and reading them with a critical eye for the insight they provide us, and invariably for what our students may also learn from them.

Therefore, when I received a review of Tap Out from a local English teacher, not on a blog or in any print media, but in the form of a hand-written letter, I was scared to open it. I had no idea what her opinion of my work was going to be, but I knew she would speak her mind, because that’s what the best teachers do.

She didn’t hold back. And what she highlighted are aspects of the novel I care about so deeply, that I was filled with pride for what Tap Out achieves:

“I loved Tap Out. The teacher in me faced, once again, that some of my most difficult students are the ones with the most difficult lives.”

This is a powerful point I’ve faced time and again. Often the “difficult” students are met with confrontation from educators and administration. This is true for Tony, yet there is also compassion and empathy from Big O. I am so glad I addressed that knotty issue authentically and that it resonated with another teacher.

“When Tony wants to isolate himself for a few minutes he was able to get on the bus ‘…and grab a seat in the middle and bury my head into the notch between the window and the seat.’ I can’t imagine there is a reader who doesn’t know that place.”

Another excellent point of perspective. It is wise for us as educators to remember what it’s like to be a teen. It’s tumultuous, and for some there’s no outlet from the turbulence. Recognizing when a student is in that place can change everything.

“Is the truck an intentional symbol for the boys? ‘A piece of shit through and through. That much was obvious in the light, as are the rust spots and chipped panel. The engine and transmission are solid, though.’ “

The question of an author’s intent with symbolism is pervasive in the classroom. I know I’ve addressed it countless times, and I’ve always said that nothing is by chance. Now I can say, as a writer, yes, the truck is symbolic, but I didn’t set out to make it so. I simply wrote about the world in which these boys live. It only made sense that they’d end up with a vehicle much like them.

The letter goes on to praise Tap Out, with the author suggesting that her assessment is beneath the level of the literary critic. I disagree. I believe it is more important. It is teachers and librarians and administrators that live on the front line. It is my purpose as a writer to account for those stories from the trenches. If a critic, who is not attached to this world isn’t thrilled with Tap Out, okay, I’m not thrilled, but I’ll live, so long as I have teachers who can see within the characters their own students, and who can then say to them, “Read this.”

Because that’s the result I seek. Writing is a business, but foremost it is an artistic expression, aiming to hit a mark so elusive and fluid, it is almost impossible. No one can hit that mark for everyone, because it doesn’t exist. There are more stories and perspectives than there are writers. But we can try. And based on this letter, I’ve hit this one dead on. Good for me, but better, good for my readers.

Thank you, Ann L.

2 thoughts on “It is not the critic who counts

  1. As a fellow high school teacher, I’m really anticipating this release. I’ve had my fair share of students with difficult backgrounds, and often when I read young adult literature I’m frustrated by the sugarcoated or cliched characters. It seems that you weren’t afraid to write the truth and portray some of the typical “young adults” of 2012. Looking forward to the read.

    • Amy,
      Thanks for your perspective. I’ve been in the same situation, wondering about the authenticity of fictional characters. I went for the truth with Tap Out, as raw and as uncomfortable as that can be. As writers, that’s our job. I hope you enjoy.

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