Is There a Right Way to Criticize?

The statesman, according to Wikipedia, “who is often regarded as the father of modern conservatism,” was Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797). I was unaware of this until I stumbled upon it while searching for the origin of the famous statement, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

A worthy counterpart to Edmund Burke might be George Bernard Shaw, widely considered to be an early champion of liberal thought. Shaw wrote, “When a stupid man is doing something he is ashamed of, he always declares that it is his duty.” 1

You’ll find both of these quotes in the random quote database at because these statements cause us to think.

And thinking is never a bad thing.

Examine that first quote and you’ll notice it’s based on the underlying premise that some people are good while others are evil.

The second quote is based on the premise that some people are stupid while others are not.

But have you ever known anyone so good there was no bad in them, or anyone so bad there was no good? And who is so wise they’ve never done a stupid thing?

Witold Gambrowicz was an obscure Polish writer until his private diaries were discovered after his death in 1969. According to the Paris Review, they are “widely considered his masterpiece.”

One of the golden nuggets Gambrowicz left behind for us was his theory on how to write a book review:

Literary criticism is not the judging of one man by another (who gave you this right?) but the meeting of two personalities on absolutely equal terms. Therefore do not judge. Simply describe your reactions. Never write about the author or the work, only about yourself in confrontation with the work or the author. You are allowed to write about yourself.

Wow. I get it. And this idea isn’t limited to literary criticism.

Instead of saying, “What you’re about to do is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of and if you do it, you’re an idiot,” one might say, “If I were about to do what you’re about to do, I would be frightened.” Then if your friend asks, “Why would you be frightened?” you can share with him your concerns.

Whatever course you decide upon, there is always someone to tell you that you are wrong. There are always difficulties arising which tempt you to believe that your critics are right. To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson


I’ve never found anyone who could explain to me the difference between constructive criticism and just plain criticism.

Violence may kill the body, but criticism kills the spirit. If you hope to bring about change, you must armor your soul against it.

John Steinbeck reminds us that all criticism is based upon subjective, personal perceptions and that such perceptions are never universally true.

A painter, letting color and line, observed, sift into his eyes, up the nerve trunks, and mix well with his experience before it flows down his hand to the canvas, has made his painting say, ‘It might be so.’ Perhaps his critic, being not so honest and not so wise, will say, ‘It is not so. The picture is damned.’ If this critic could say, ‘It is not so with me, but that might be because my mind and experience are not identical with those of the painter,’ that critic would be a better critic for it, just as the painter is a better painter for knowing he himself is in the pigment. 2


If we want to make the world a better place, if we want to bring an end to polarized politics, if we want to make friends instead of enemies, we must remember the advice of Gambrowicz, Emerson and Steinbeck.

At least it seems so to me.

Does it seem so, also, to you?

Roy H. Williams

1 Caesar and Cleopatra, Act III, by George Bernard Shaw (1901)
2 Sea of Cortez, p. 265, by John Steinbeck (1941)