Critique versus criticism

One of the most valuable lessons I learned in creative writing, concerns the difference between critique and criticism. Although in Persian we do have the word “naghd” for critique and “eerad” for criticism, most of us tend to use the word “enteghad” for both. However, in English, critique is objective while criticism is more personal and often tends to find fault.

After reading Camancho’s latest review [see “Iran with Lolita in Persepolis“] and some of her comments on two good contemporary Iranian authors, I think this is a subject she should revisit. To criticize two of the best books written by Iranian women is beyond me, however, critique is a whole different issue.

I remember my teacher at UCSD telling me, “You may express your opinion and mention the parts that can be improved on, but don’t ever assume to suggest major changes or touch someone else’s style!”

As a writer, I appreciate and admire the art in both Azar Nafissi and Marjan Satrapi’s works. Not only have they reflected on painful personal experiences and revisited a difficult period in their lives — something that is always hard to do — but they have managed to create something that readers worldwide can relate to. As to the genre or the kind of prose they choose to tell their stories in, that I believe is a personal matter and the right any author deserves.

Another great lesson I’ve been given is, “Stick to what you know best!” With this valuable lesson in mind, the way in which each of the two authors chose to tell their stories makes perfect sense. Camancho criticizes Nafissi for choosing contemporary American literature to depict today’s Iranian woman. It sounds as if she would have preferred this to be done through Persian books. That is a great idea and it has been done, too.

I hope Camancho can also read Persian, because in Simaye Do Zan (Portraits of Two Women) Saeedi Sirjani has painted an immaculate portrait of the liberated Iranian young woman, Shireen, and her counterpart, the submissive Arab girl, Leili. Sirjani, with reference to Nizami’s classic masterpiece told his readers of how our Shireens are forced to become Leilis. He did this so skillfully, the book was published in 1988 at the peak of the Islamic revolution and when every written word underwent extreme scrutiny before it went into print. His eloquent style and originality would be impossible to match and hard to imitate. Sirjani used what he knew best and indeed that’s what makes his work so fabulous.

Nafissi, on the other hand, is a scholar in American contemporary literature. In Reading Lolita in Tehran, She uses what she knows best to parallel the two worlds that could not be more diverse. That is her art and, whether or not we agree with her, the success of her book speaks for itself. True as it may be that the reader may not see Nabakov’s Lolita as innocent a victim as portrayed in Nafissi’s book, or that there is much more to the Iranian revolution and indeed the Iranian women’s struggle for freedom than described in this book. But the fact remains that the author’s art is convincing enough to most and leads to the satisfaction of majority of her readers.

On the other hand, Marjane Satrapi’s book, Persepolis, is a whole different story. She is first and foremost an artist who specializes in illustration. Although it might have been interesting enough to see the revolution through the eyes of a little girl, but Satrapi doesn’t just tell her story. Instead, through her fine art, she take her readers to a place that may be hard to imagine and shows how the daily life of a young girl evolves and how she deals with such drastic changes. Not only is her style simple and refreshing, but her fantastic illustrations speaks volumes. Once again, she has chosen “what she knows best,” to tell her story. It is touching, it is pure, and although a little girl’s point of view can be lighthearted and indeed funny to some, what she tells could not be further from comical.

Historical literature is most enjoyable when it focuses on a particular aspect. Something as enormous as a revolution, if summarized in one book, is bound to misinform or become boring. A writer, in particular someone who tends to be as artistic as these two authors are, can only write what has touched her heart. Thus, according to the old Persian verse, “The word that comes from one’s heart shall undoubtedly settle into another’s.”

This is by no means to imply that these books are perfect and that there’s no room for critique. Almost any work of art stands to receive some form of critique, but let us not forget that style is nothing but a combination of each artist’s little imperfections. The overwhelming success of both books proves that they each are unique in their style and deserve much praise. A fair critique is to study the art without bringing one’s personal preferences into account. Therefore, it would be unfair to degrade good work based on partiality.

In a world fascinated with romance novels and commercially exploited writing, it is refreshing to find books such as Persepolis and Reading Lolita in Tehran. As long as there are good books that not only are a pleasure to read but offer some information, I for one plan to continue reading them.

Zohreh Khazai Ghahremani is a retired dentist and a freelance writer. She lives in San Diego, California. Her latest book is “Sharik-e Gham” (see excerpt).

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