Learning from bad reviews: George Saunders on Doug Unger

George Saunders writes a nice little memoir about his writing workshop days in this week’s The New Yorker. All of it worth reading, but this bit on Doug Unger’s willingness to share his process surrounding an unkind review highlights a teacher’s inherent decency:

Doug gets an unkind review. We are worried. Will one of us dopily bring it up in workshop? We don’t. Doug does. Right off the bat. He wants to talk about it, because he feels there might be something in it for us. The talk he gives us is beautiful, honest, courageous, totally generous. He shows us where the reviewer was wrong—but also where the reviewer might have gotten it right. Doug talks about the importance of being able to extract the useful bits from even a hurtful review: this is important, because it will make the next book better. He talks about the fact that it was hard for him to get up this morning after that review and write, but that he did it anyway. He’s in it for the long haul, we can see. He’s a fighter, and that’s what we must become too: we have to learn to honor our craft by refusing to be beaten, by remaining open, by treating every single thing that happens to us, good or bad, as one more lesson on the longer path.

When I was a PhD student, Randy Crane let me see a set of reviews on a manuscript. He pulled aside the curtain a bit, to let me see the job, and made me better at it. It’s a very decent thing to do, one of the many things he did for me.