Seeking Grace

Sarah L. Kaufman
The Art of Grace: On Moving Well Through Life
(W. W. Norton & Company, 2015)


Dear Ms. Kaufman,

I really enjoyed your book, which offers a survey of graceful people along with analysis of how each embodies that ineffable quality, which you describe early in the book as “the transference of well-being from one who is calm and comfortable to those around him.” I agree with your assertion that “we need a return to grace” and have been taking to heart your suggestions of ways people can bring more grace into their lives. I particularly like the one about accepting kindnesses from others, because it highlights the idea that grace is not an achievement or something earned; it’s appreciation of what’s already there. Overall, your book left me inspired, but it also left me with some questions, which is why I’m writing this letter.

The clearest way that I can present my questions is to show them to you as they appeared in my notebook soon after I started reading your book:

Grace: making people feel at ease; not pointing out things that could embarrass a guest—rather, not embarrassing a guest even if that means not stating the obvious, not making a criticism. How does a critic reconcile this idea of graciousness with her line of work, which involves evaluating works of art and pointing out their strengths and weaknesses? Or the cultural critic, who may see value in discussing things that make people uncomfortable and trying to understand why those things discomfit?

Yours is a very pro-grace book. I wish you had devoted some of it to instances where graciousness might come into conflict with other priorities. That the book left my questions unanswered and that it didn’t play devil’s advocate against grace were originally going to be my negative critiques in what would otherwise be a positive review.

However, I didn’t want to criticize you for what the book didn’t say, or imply that you had missed something. Maybe you simply chose not to include the case against grace. I was also hesitant to raise the question of how grace relates to criticism because then I’d have to answer it myself, and I suspected that you, the Washington Post’s resident dance critic, a Pulitzer-Prize winner, and a veritable grace expert, would have a much better answer, anyway. So instead of a potentially ungracious review, I’m writing this letter.

Do you see a conflict between being gracious and being critical, given that negative reviews probably make the artists in question uncomfortable to some degree? As I considered this issue, I thought about the fact that most dance review readers are not the artists themselves but theatergoers and people interested in the arts, whom a negative review shouldn’t bother, right?

Cultural criticism, on the other hand, basically addresses the way people, likely including its readers, live. It has great potential to discomfit its audience. But I think the benefits of criticism trump its potential to make people uncomfortable. I’d even go further and say that criticism’s ability to make people uneasy is, sometimes, a good thing. A critic’s examination of a topic that tends to make people uncomfortable can help readers think about a subject they might otherwise avoid; they might even come out of their reading feeling more comfortable. On the other hand, criticism can also point out sinister aspects of culture, like unconscious racism, that people might be too comfortable with. Sometimes it’s good to, as the saying goes, “afflict the comfortable.” But is it also ungracious, and does that matter?

I suppose there are at least two kinds of grace at play in the life of a critic: grace on the page and grace in person. How are they different? For instance, what if, at a party, you encountered a choreographer whose work you had given a bad review? Would you tell the dancemaker what you thought of her work? Chances are that she already knows from reading your piece. Maybe the appropriate utterance depends on whether or not the choreographer asks your opinion. If I were the reviewer in that scenario, I probably wouldn’t volunteer my negative opinion, nor would I dodge a question about it. If I had to say something negative, I would probably try to soft-pedal it. What would you do—or do you do—in situations like these?

I think whether to speak one’s mind is situation-dependent and that motives matter. I don’t particularly believe in self-censorship for decorum’s sake. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s worth doing anything for the sole purpose of making someone uncomfortable. I doubt that good criticism exists at those extremes, anyway.

Criticism does a lot more than make people cringe. When I read a review of a movie I’ve seen, for example, I appreciate the film in a different way. Cultural criticism gives me new perspectives on my life, and on other people’s lives. To see something from someone else’s perspective is a graceful exchange.

Here’s a potentially important distinction between grace in person and in writing: A reader of an article willingly enters into that exchange with the writer. Perhaps some readers even want to be made uncomfortable, just as some people watch horror movies because they want to be scared. The choreographer at the party, on the other hand, may or may not be interested in such a discussion, and it’s important to suss that out. I suppose that’s when you rely on body language, à la Cary Grant, your epitome of grace.

There’s another area where I think the case for grace may be a bit unclear: grace in relation to sexism. The book’s exemplars of grace included both men and women. The book did not, however, discuss the ways in which our culture asks men and women to deal with grace in different, sometimes contradictory ways. I think the issue might have been worth bringing up.

I hear again and again that people dislike women for appearing cold or “bossy.” Women are regarded more positively if they are warm, nice, and agreeable. In that sense, graciousness is technically a plus for us (though, that expectations of grace for men and women are different is not a plus; it’s sexist). On the other hand, I read about how women lag behind men in business because we essentially exhibit gracious behaviors (in particular, I’m thinking of an Atlantic article by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman entitled “The Confidence Gap”): we tend to be shy about interrupting, barging in, ignoring rules, speaking up, disagreeing, demanding things, like higher pay. In fact, one of your book’s examples of graciousness, Jennifer Lawrence recently wrote for LennyLetter.com about how, after the Sony hack revealed that she made less than her male counterparts, she wished she had negotiated for a higher salary and realized that she had not done so out of a wish to be agreeable. Being more gracious at work might ultimately hurt women professionally, even if it helps them socially. Graciousness could hurt men for the same reasons, but it’s less likely to do so because men face less social pressure to be nice. Through confident, aggressive behavior, men can win both popularity and power.

I hate to say, though, that the way for women to advance in the professional world is to be less gracious. I’d rather advocate, as you do, that everyone try to get along. If society placed more value on life’s ineffable qualities, maybe then graciousness would make business sense. I hope that your book will lead us in that direction.

Yours,
Ashley

P.S.: I noticed that your book is labeled “self-improvement.” I think it could also be called cultural criticism, and gracious criticism at that. A less gracious book might have been titled Our Fall From Grace and chronicled clumsiness. You made your point—that it would good for all of us to be more gracious—in a way that was inclusive, encouraging, and positive. So in a way your book did answer my question, “What makes gracious criticism?” after all.

Contributor

Ashley P. Taylor

ASHLEY P. TAYLOR lives in Brooklyn and writes about both science and the arts. View more of her work at ashleyptaylor.com.

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