The Dangers of Praise by Dan Holloway

The most important piece of advice you could give anyone in the creative arts is “always stay true to your artistic vision.” That’s all very well, but it’s not, practically, very helpful. In large part, this is because it can frame the problem you face in the wrong way. It is easy to think of the journey of authenticity (I promise that’s the last time I’ll use that word) as one of seeing the obstacles placed in your way and finding the fortitude to surmount them.

 (Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, a book of which I am immensely proud - and which you can buy here - which lots of people praised for its beautiful writing but whose most important feature was its pulling together of fragmented narratives)

But that ignores what I have found to be the most tricksy obstacle of all – the positives you encounter along the way. And it’s not just the case in the arts, it’s the same in every walk of life, and by and large it boils down to a simple fact of psychology – passive aggression is harder to spot and therefore more insidious than overt aggression. How many of us have seen their friends change from the joyous person they once were to a shadow of their former selves at the urgings of a Svengali-ish influence who tells them in the gentlest tones that “I love it when you xxx”? Of course we love it when we’re told that someone likes us for something. So we do more of it, and that slowly becomes the core of our being. And when friends tell us that we’ve changed we can’t see anything but “yeah, for the better.”

And it needn’t be the case that the nice words that change us are malicious. Often they come from the kindest of places, from people who genuinely want the best for us, who “know” that it is in our best interests to “be a little bit quieter” or “make more effort to fit in” or “bite your lip when your gran says things like that – it wasn’t racist in her day.”

It’s the same in the arts. The most potentially dangerous thing of all is praise. There are so many great articles telling us how to handle negative reviews, to remember what it is we’re trying to achieve and take positives from criticism but only if they ring true.

What very few such articles teach us is how to handle positive reviews. The principle should be the same. It’s so easy to feel that flutter of the heart when someone says nice things. And when enough people say the same nice things, the desire to do those things again, and more, is Pavlovian. Our pens follow the praise. And then one day we wake up and look at our body of work, and wonder what happened to our artistic dreams.

So the advice we most need to hear, but which is the hardest of all to hear because it meets a screaming wall of endorphins and denial, is to be more wary of praise than criticism. Always remember what your vision is. And don’t let the bright lights and the warm feelings distract you from that. And read every review, both the bad and the good, with that vision absolutely in the centre of your thoughts.


JO said…
Couldn't agree more, Dan. The leader of my writing group is great at the 'shit sandwich' (say something is wonderful, then what needs to change, then say it's wonderful) but I can get her to see I don't need the bread - just tell me what doesn't work!!

She's balanced by a daughter who says exactly what she thinks - only a daughter could get away with her bluntness, but how I value it!
Dan Holloway said…
I don't mind being told something is good (though I agree, it's a rather cod piece of psychology used in that context that tends to make me plain irritated and less likely to take the good advice in the middle as I lose respect for the person who hasn't got the oomph to come straigt out and say it!) - in many ways that's the problem. I like it too much, so when I'm told something's good I'll simply try and do "more of that" irrespective of whether it's actually what I set out to do artistically
Sessha Batto said…
Praise or condemnation - it's all only someone's opinion. Opinions are like assholes, everyone has one but I don't need to get up close and personal with it. Then again, I've never been one to change for anyone or to pander to popular opinion.
Joni Rodgers said…
I totally agree, Dan. (And the risk of seducing you with flattery, I really did love this book.)
Dan Holloway said…
Thank you, Joni :)

Sessha - you're amazing and an inspiration - I wish I had the confidence in my vision to be as unswerved by praise as by criticism :)
Sessha Batto said…
HA - more like cranky and set in my ways ;) In truth, I've never trusted praise for anything my whole life, why should writing be any different. Condemnation . . . well, that took a bit more to learn to ignore and not take to heart. It helps that I write books no one reads, less commentary all around!
glitter noir said…
Fine piece, Dan. I try to always bear in mind that Byron's best friends implored him to stop working on Don Juan and return to the 'Byronic' gloomy fluff they loved. Thank God he stayed true to his vision.
Lee said…
I remember all too well what my vision is - and it's far from 20-20.

Lydia Bennet said…
Trust you Dan, to come up with something so individual, surprising and thought-provoking!and of course so honest about yourself. we all like praise and compliments. At the very least, most writers want recognition - if it was all just about the writing we wouldn't publish. I've tended to move on to different ideas and genres, when it would have been more successful in worldly terms to stick with one and pursue it relentlessly. However I do admit I like good reviews, kind remarks, people laughing or crying or both in my performances. It means a lot to me that people respond to my work. The opportunity to try new areas of interest is an advantage of indie publishing - an agent tends to insist on a writer toeing the line.
Dan Holloway said…
Indeed, Reb!
Lee - mine too :)
Valerie - no one exemplifies better the freedom we have to express our creativity any way we wish and to seek out ever different ways of doing so than you!

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