I think we all know that offering a critique on another writer's work is a sensitive business. I mean, these are our wee cuddly babies up on the chopping block. Which is why it always surprises me how harsh some people can be. A bit of a throat-cutter, the ol' critique business.
Maybe it shouldn't surprise me. I know a lot of the harshest critiques are more about ego than anything else. There's a faction of critters where the harshness is the entire point, harshness and devaluation being part of a process of power acquisition. It's a dynamic, the critter placing themself above the story being critiqued, and thus above the other writer. It's a bit of a show, usually, with these people. A rhetorical display, a chance to show their knowledge and their wit. It's a bit like animals in a pack, jockeying for position and mating rights. Grrrrr. It's about the power. But we're not a feral pack here, and any such power gained comes needlessly at the expense of another writer.
Harsh. But I understand it, and understand that it has less to do with the critique process than it does the psychological need of the critter, the need to assert themselves.
Yet what puzzles me even more, at times, is another sort of harsh critique. This kind will often have a fair bit of constructive criticism... but offered harshly, with snark and bluntness and very little kindness. And the reasoning for this, as is so often given, is that the publishing world is tough and harsh. Get used to it. They're doing you a favour.
This logic seems bankrupt to me. There's an element of social irresponsibility to this sort of reasoning. I mean, you don't hear people say "Hey, I stole your wallet. Really it's for your own good. It's tough out there. This'll prepare you for all the petty crime in the world. Buck up, you can take it."
It's a reasoning that is essentially irrational and selfish. There's lots of pollution in the world, so it doesn't matter if I pollute a little myself. Lots of people steal, so it's no big deal if I steal myself. It's essentially self-justification. I can't really be bothered to be kind or considerate... the minimal (if any) effort required is simply too much. And yet I'm not selfish, oh no... it's for your own good. It's a tough world out there and you have to be tough...
And they can take it themselves! So they say. And so it must be okay. They're tough... why not you? But just because I like to hold my hand in an open flame to prove my toughness and to convince myself there's purity in pain, well, this doesn't mean it's okay for me to force other peoples' hands into the fire.
The basic fact is this: a critique is supposed to help someone. And if you're hurting them you're not helping them. Yes, even if you have a lot of sharp, constructive criticism to offer. Presentation is often as important as content. And if your presentation is hurtful it often obscures the helpful. The positive elements are lost behind the harsh facade, lost behind the hurtful words. And, to me, that is simply a bad critique. That is simply bad writing. Remember, these are wee cuddly babies we're talking about.
Case in point:
"I know a great music class your ugly toddler would love."
So... who'd be signing up for that class?