Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The Value of Being A Tiger Mother Reviewer

If you haven't already heard about the semi-controversy over Amy Chua's book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, it basically involves a woman who presents the values of a stereotypical Asian mother as the best way to raise a child. A lot of people are criticizing the book because they claim that pushing a child too hard and never being happy with them borders on abuse rather than proper parenting.

I'd like to note first that Amy Chua was NOT 100% serious in her book. Much of the controversy was probably the result of book marketing--which has apparently worked since BHotTM is #10 on Amazon.

More importantly, I'd like to talk about how this discussion got me thinking about my own reviewing techniques. It affects you.

I read excerpts of "Tiger Mother" with an initial bias against it. I felt a lot of pressure to be the best in my teenage years, and I think it caused a lot of needless stress. But, as I was reading, something Chua wrote really struck me. It deals with the concept of expectations.

To paraphrase, Chua argues that a parent who pushes their child to be perfect holds the fundamental view that their child can be perfect. Conversely, a parent who refuses to push their child to be perfect might be assuming that their child cannot be perfect.

For me, that was a very profound insight. I realized that in reviewing the work of my fellow writers, I often soften up because I worry about pushing them too hard. The assumption I'm making is that I don't truly believe that my fellow writers can be as good as Tolstoy or Shakespeare or Woolf or whoever.

This is sort of a sad admission isn't it?

I'm trying to be helpful, but my expectations are possibly too low to ever make anyone better. At the same time, I love it when someone gives me a truly hard critique because it almost always makes me a better writer. (Don't read too much between the lines here, because it really does make me look quite bad the more you think about it.)

So, I wonder. When you all are reviewing each other's work, do you give them feedback with the view that the person you're reviewing could be the best? Is there value to holding that Tiger Mother mindset?

I want to propose an experiment, but I'm really scared it will backfire, so approach at your own risk. I'd like to ask three of you to send me paragraphs that will be reviewed publicly. But, the catch is that I'm going to review them Tiger Mother style. I'm going to assume that you can be as good as the best writers out there, and I'm going to expect that from you. I'll be very critical, and we'll see if it makes you a better writer, or if it just makes you mad at me. I'd also like to ask three of you to send me paragraphs for the opposite type of review. I'll be nice and supportive, only bringing up the good points. I know from experience that this technique also makes a writer better. So, if you're interested, send me excerpts (up to 250 words) to dmalasarn@gmail.com. Tell me if you want a Tiger Mother review or a nice review, and I'll take the first three people in each category. I'll post them up on Monday and Wednesday, and I'll also post up some of my own writing for YOUR Tiger Mother reviews.

62 comments:

  1. Sounds fun. Just sent you an unvarnished chunk from a new story.

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  2. I also sent you a bit from something new. Bare your teeth Tiger Mama!

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  3. Okay, you asked for it! :) That's two for Tiger style. Why do I feel like and In n Out Burger Drive Thru window all of a sudden? I'll plan to post these on Monday.

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  4. Okay--I don't know why I feel compelled to do this, but go ahead and tear into what I'm about to send you...

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  5. I don't have anything to send right now, but I'm interested to see how this pans out.

    I've been reading a lot about the Tiger Mother controversy, and you bring up a hugely important point--If you want to criticize something intelligently, you'd better read the actual source material first!

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  6. I've actually felt bad for Chua because of the misguided response the book has gotten in so many quarters, but then I decide that hopefully the sales figures make up for it a little bit.

    I'm not quite a Tiger Mother reviewer, but I do formulate a picture in my mind of each writer's capabilities and I'll push pretty hard to try and help a writer hit that mark.

    I think I do it in a less harsh way, but I think I'm pretty unrelenting. I dunno; Michelle can probably tell you whether that's accurate or not.

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  7. I wanted a Tiger Mother review but looks like all three slots are filled. Why am I not compelled to ask for the other kind? Hmmm.

    Nevets: I don't feel bad for Amy Chua. I think all the hullabaloo, misguided or otherwise, is exactly what she aimed for. It's a hugely successful marketing plan.

    I will secretly do a version of the high-expectations critique of the passages and see how that feels.

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  8. jbchicoine, you're number #3. Hope it ends up being useful!

    So far, no one is opting for the nice-nice review, which is interesting already!

    Genie, yes, based on a interview of Chua I heard, reading the entire book leaves a very different impression compared to only reading the press releases.

    Nevets, so here's the question. If you formulate a picture of a writer's capabilities, that means that you're limiting them in your mind, right? Based on what Chua is saying, that sort of limitation is goes against the Tiger Mother mindset that assumes anyone can be anything. What do you think about that?

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  9. I have lately stopped pushing at people to be "the best" because I realize that my idea of "best" isn't usually the same as everyone else's when it comes to writing. It occurs to me that most other writers and I will have little interest in each other's novels and that my pushing them to raise the quality of their prose or whatever will not actually be helping them make the book into something they'd enjoy as a reader. Which sort of leaves me flailing around, wishing to be useful but not really being much help.

    All the same, I like the idea of being more of a taskmaster and less of a cheerleader. I'm just better at it. I'll be interested to see what you post on Monday.

    Aside to Genie o' the shell: Nux Gallica is adorable! Good luck with your insurance company.

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  10. Yat-Yee, I agree that the publicity was probably mostly intentional. Sorry you were just a couple minutes behind, but I've read your work before and I think I was fairly honest in my critique!

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  11. Scott, that's another dilemma that I think (maybe) is a separate issue. When I review, I will try my best to help the writer accomplish what I think they are trying to accomplish. I may be completely wrong, but we can worry about that later. Honestly, though, either way, whether you critique me based on your own standards or mine, it has made me think and it has made me a better writer. I've appreciated your reviews and I do think yours tend to come with the type of mentality Chua is advocating.

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  12. i dont believe that anyone can be anything,,, but that's another set of arguments, it seems the field is full with Tiger review entries. I think this is a great experiment.

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  13. What a great idea, Davin! I get your feedback all the time so I won't send you a paragraph. ;)

    I think it's really important to understand what kind of feedback and the author wants, and also at what phase the piece of writing is in. There are a lot of factors that can go into this.

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  14. Oh, and whenever I want 100% truly honest feedback from you, I'll tell you I want a Tiger Crit. :)

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  15. I think I vary from the Tiger Mother expectations in this way:

    I think everyone is capable of being the best -- but I think there are different ways of being the best.

    This is one of the reasons why, despite my love for the Chinese and Thai cultures, I am by nature more attuned to the Japanese culture.

    If you're going to be a musician, you better darn well be the best at it or still be climbing towards the best when you die.

    But you might be a violinist. You might be a pianist. You might be a rock guitarist.

    Admittedly, this seems to be a development in Japanese culture of the past twenty years or so, prior to which being the best meant being a classical musician only.

    Anyway, when I do a serious critique or feedback review and I assess someone's capabilities it's not so much the level of their capabilities that I'm assessing as the nature.

    It's definitely not a pure Tiger Mother mindset, but it's a pretty high level of expectations and definitely not willing to let them slack off.

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  16. glnroz, I think that's a fundamental difference between people. I don't know what's right, but I've always assumed anyone can do anything. (People tend to laugh at me a lot for that.)

    Michelle, yes, you can do a special order whenever you like, LOL. I'm usually pretty good at asking what kind of review someone wants. Tiger Mother wouldn't ask, though!

    Nevets, thanks for the expansion!

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  17. I read this early this morning but I was running out the door and couldn't prepare a page for you to shred. If you enjoyed your experiment and want more sacrifices, I'm in.

    I would love to read your reviews to both styles of critiquing, especially if they were the same excerpts.

    I smell another contest brewing...


    Concerning the child rearing aspect: I was not pushed as a child AT ALL! I was never asked what I wanted to do when I grew up, there was never talk about which college I would attend, etc. I graduated high school, then I wondered what would follow. There was zero direction and zero pressure. In a life full of regrets, that's a big one. But that ship sailed.

    I haven't read Ms. Chua's book so I can't comment on it, but from your description, I mostly agree with her. Pushing, or mayby, encouraging
    is a better word, a child to work to their potential, not perfection, is my style. Oh, and much less video games!

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  18. Nevets: I am not sure I get your delineation among the cultures. Which is it that you just described?

    Also, Chua's claims to the Chinese mindset is really quite presumptuous and hardly representative of an entire culture from which she is removed by a step or two.

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  19. I have nothing to send, but I'll definitely be keeping my eye on this.

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  20. I just read a friend's review of that book this morning and another friend recommended it to me a couple weeks ago.

    Your epiphany is very interesting and I'm going to have to think about it. Thanks for sharing.

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  21. Scott, when a writer of your caliber, a self-described perfectionist, offers to critique a sample of writing, that's like winning the lottery. I can imagine hearing the unedited, and possibly, unprintable thoughts of a tough writer after reading an excerpt of my stuff. That's gold to me. Damn the ego, give me the truth. My mother beamed when she read my crappy little first draft. Useless. There's little chance of a writer improving if they aren't aware of their weaknesses.

    I think you guys already did a post about the art of critiquing. Sorry about the tangent.

    PS. Scott, if you didn't actually describe yourself as a perfectionist, you seem that way to me.

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  22. @Yat-Yee - I totally agree with you about the scope of Chua's book, and I think she would too.

    And my delineation was sloppy and is crudely constructed based on my second hand perspective.

    I was describing one strain of Japanese parenting culture that I've seen a lot of and that seems to have fairly popular acceptance as an ideal if not in implementation.

    What I've seen of parenting (even high-expectation parenting) in other Asian cultures has typically had a different feel or a different aim.

    To be honest, my perspective is clearly limited and I probably shouldn't have even gone down this road. lol

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  23. @Yat-Yee - p.s. The reason I did go down that road was the conversation brought to mind comments I've had from Japanese friends who've asked me in regard to a variety of personality traits, "Are you sure you aren't Japanese?" lol Oh well, it's a complicated topic not well-suited to a blog comment.

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  24. Charlie, This idea of pushing someone is very interesting to me. I never feel confident in how I manage someone else. I don't think I ever push anyone hard enough because I'm usually too worried about hurting their feelings. I've been changing, though.

    Yat-Yee, Chua addresses that too. She does clarify all of this and she says "Asian Mother" is just a term she's using that doesn't hold true to everyone.

    Amanda, I'll be curious to know what you think.

    Lois, the statement about expectations has really gotten me thinking. I think it has been helpful to me.

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  25. Domey, I assume that you know a bit about each of the three writer's you'll be critiquing. I wonder how much your knowledge of them and perhaps any of their previous writing (in this instance and when you critique a larger work) influences the 'Tiger Mother'.

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  26. jbchicoine, well, I actually no very little about the first two writers, and I know a bit about you, so we'll see if that makes a difference!

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  27. Domey,

    I think everyone is scared that the non-tiger review is going to sound like "oh honey, isn't that precious. I'm going to hang it on my fridge." So I sent you the first section of a short story. Am looking forward to the comparison.

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  28. B. Nagel,
    Excellent! Thank you for giving that a shot. A nice review doesn't mean flowery. I think you'll appreciate the results.

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  29. Okay, I just got a second excerpt for the nice review. Thank you!

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  30. I just sent you a piece to review, if you haven't filled up yet. :)

    I've found that people who are truly serious about writing want you to tear their work apart, because it helps them improve. People who are just writing for fun sometimes get upset if you are too critical with them. So I guess it depends on why you are writing and whether you want to learn from your mistakes or not. :)

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  31. Autumn2May, I did get a third excerpt already. I'll critique yours too as a bonus behind the scenes, okay?

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  32. I'm interested in this, 'cause, quite frankly, I'd rather have the Tiger Mother crit. It's the kind I give. Actually, I've gotten less and less subtle with my critiquing, the more I do of it. It takes more energy to try and be nice than it does to just express my opinion.

    And this is where establishing a reputation as an opinionated, snarky bastard can help. People expect me to be a bit of a pill. It may be a pyrrhic victory of sorts, but it is what it is. *shrugs*

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  33. Domey: Yeah, I'm sure it's a separate issue. If someone asks me for a critique, I usually ask them what they're looking for. If they say "whatever you see" then they get whatever I see however I see it, and I pretty much don't believe in beating around the bush. So perhaps critiquing when asked is different from giving general advice. Mostly, I think, I am talking about a separate issue.

    Charlie: It's not that I'm a perfectionist, it's more that I know all of my work fails to live up to my standards. What's difficult is that at the end of a project my standards have climbed higher than they were at the start of the project, so my goals will always be out of reach. But that's okay. It keeps me from being bored.

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  34. Nevets: Honestly, when someone asks me to critique a work, the first thing I ask myself is, "Is this stuff as good as the very best literature I have read? If no, then why not?" I go on from there. But those are my standards, and all of my suggestions will be aimed at pushing the work toward great literature. If someone doesn't care about the prose and just wants to know if their action story is exciting, they've come to the wrong critic.

    The last couple of people who have asked me for feedback have all said "that's interesting but I'm not taking any of your advice" and so I've decided not to critique anything unless it really is literary fiction. I wouldn't told J.K. Rowling not to waste her time with the boy wizard stuff, you know.

    How far off-topic can Bailey go today? Let's not find out.

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  35. @ Domey: your experiment has inspired a blog post I finished within a reasonable time. Hopefully that will start my juices running again.

    @ Nevets: Ah. So you've been asked by your Japanese friends about your Japaneseness. The reason I ask was that I thought you meant your description to be Japanese but it sounds awfully familiar to my Chinese ears. You're right, this is a knotty subject best explored somewhere other than in blog comment section.

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  36. @Scott - Knowing who you're asking is a big responsibility that no one should take lightly. I never ask someone simply because I respect their writing or their broad views on literature. I only ask if I know they will give expert, appropriate feedback on what I'm trying to do.

    @Domey - I actually think my answer to Scott plays in a little what what I'd say about the approach of suiting a critique to what the writer is hoping to accomplish. I do that when I'm reading but when I'm critting, I ask what they want me looking at and then I just go at it, assuming they they know what they're getting themselves in for.

    That has, admittedly, blown up in my face a couple times.

    @Yat-Yee - That's interesting. I'm not surprised if my exposure to Chinese family life is a pretty skewed sample. Anyway, I already said this was too complex for this format. But the anthropologist in me wants to keep talking about it. hahaha

    Maybe some conference will take me to Colorado and we can grab a cup of tea sometime. :)

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  37. Nevets: That's it. You must find a conference in Fort Collins!

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  38. Simon, you'll get both, you pill.

    Yat-Yee, thanks for the heads up. I'm going there right...now!

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  39. @Yat-Yee - I think I've mentioned before how much I love that part of the country. The Laramie and Cheyenne area rocks my socks. I think I would love Fort Collins.

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  40. I think someone needs to plot the amount of drift the Lit Lab gets in our blog comments. I'm just saying.

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  41. I haven't gotten to use SPSS for three years now. I could do some awesome non-parametric stats on that...

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  42. Yes, I'm most interested in the non-parametricness of the drift, especially using boolean functions and eigenvalues.

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  43. Actually, I'd like to do a cluster analysis and chart it in three dimensions just to visualize the distribution, and then do a PCA analysis to look for grouping trends and possibly do a regression to check for causation.

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  44. The causation is almost always epigenetic, usually due to DNA methylation and the such.

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  45. I will hijack his guest post tomorrow in the comments section. We'll see how he feels about it then.

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  46. We'll be guerilla commenters. I like it.

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  47. I have a feeling that by the time tomorrow rolls around I will forget any of this was said.

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  48. Michelle: Davin and I will remember. We'll remind you.

    Nevets: Bwahahahahah. Just saying.

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  49. I just want to take this opportunity to remind everyone what a fantastic post Domey put together and how many great things there are still be said about the topic.

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  50. And somehow, that doesn't calm me down any

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  51. Bragh! I am way behind the comment curve here but just wanted to say that I'm really anxious to see how the experiment (Tiger Mother vs. Nurturing Reviewer, not the scatterplot thing) turns out. I suspect that the best path is, like so many things, a happy medium ... but I'll be tuning in to find out!

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  52. Hi Carrie,
    Thanks for stopping by. We'll see what happens!

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  53. Domey sez: "Yes, I'm most interested in the non-parametricness of the drift, especially using boolean functions and eigenvalues" and "The causation is almost always epigenetic, usually due to DNA methylation and the such."

    My brain is full.

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  54. Charlie,
    Unfortunately, this was a bunch of nonsense, so best to just rinse it out of your mind. If, however, you are ever interested in the effects of divalent cation chelation on metal uptake transporter gene transcription, give me a call. 555-1234

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  55. I'm sending you a paragraph too. Tiger mother review, please.

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  56. Shoot -- scratch that, I see you've filled the slots.

    Still, I WAS up for a sh*t sandwich, with very thin slices of bread. What Yat Yee said about Chua's marketing plan. Very effective.

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  57. The tiger mother does not provide bread on her sandwiches!

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