Dear Sir: Stuff It You Know Where--Reb MacRath

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Enter the Zone of the Big Time Boo-Hoo. You've just received the report card for your latest book or whatever. And you've received a C or D...or even an E or an F. Suddenly the A's, B-Pluses and B's you've received  have a pall cast over them. You feel slimed and vilified.

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Then, by degrees, worse happens. You start to wonder if They're right...and end up feeling crushed.

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Poor you. Life doesn't get too much tougher than becoming a poor crushed tomato. You envy hapless newbies who've earned their own rotten report cards. They'll grow as they go...or go under. But you? You're a veteran in the Arena and you've spent decades refining your craft. Still, you're receiving E's and F's for the very things you chose to do...and which you feel sure you've done well.

What to do?

Hemingway wrote that if we believe the good things people say about our work, then we must believe the bad. But did he practice what he preached? After all, he did slap critic Max Eastman in the face with a copy of Death in the Afternoon.

It may have been truer to say that we must suffer bad reviews. Still, Gore Vidal thought otherwise:

In their youth most people worry whether or not other people will like them. Not me. I had the choice of going under or surviving, and I survived by understanding (after the iron- if not the silver- had entered my soul) that it is I who am keeping score. What matters is what I think, not what others think of me; and I am willing to say what I think. That is the critical temperament. Edmund Wilson had it, but almost no one else now does, except for a few elderly Englishmen.

Key points:

--We can go under or survive.
--We can better our chances if we start keeping superior score and become at heart elderly Brits.
--At all times we need to be clear in our heads about what counts artistically. Then we can filter our senseless attacks on our having done what we set out to do.

Key caveats:
--Ignoring all feedback is arrogance, not a sane alternative.
--Awareness of the motives or values of critics is the master key. (If Byron had listened to the friends who begged his return to his earlier style, he'd never have written Don Juan.)
--Consistency in feedback can offer useful clues. (Writers may develop 'tics', stylistic trademark habits. And they may not see how boring these tics have become: Tarantino's over-the-top use of the N word...or his patented 'cool' The Hateful Eight. Actors? Clearly, Tom Cruise listened, reining in his Boy Toy style for the last two MI films: the new gravitas is fitting for a star now in his fifties.)

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The Boy Toy Tom                       The Tom who listened

--Hubris in scorekeeping can detract from one's own work. (Vidal had wicked verbal fun with his famous rivals. But he never wrote a his chief victim, Truman Capote, was delighted to point out.)

Gore Vidal obituary: 1981: In Los Angeles, California, USAImage result for truman capote
The scorekeeper                                                     His chief victim

Parting thoughts:
--If we believe only our best reviews, we're prideful.
--If we refuse to chew upon enlightened feedback, we're fools.
--The most useful feedback is that which helps us grow.
--Now and then we'll always disappoint our loyal fans.
--But the burning question must always be:

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Could this book that's caused their discontent be the best thing that I've done? Or: in this particular instance, who's the one keeping superior score?

Thanks to Valerie Laws for inspiring this post.


Wendy H. Jones said…
What a great way of putting this and so true. Great way to start my day
Jan Needle said…
plenty to chew over there with me sausages and grits, thanks. incidentally, as a lifelong englishman, what are (is?) grits? the only sort of criticism i find hard not to grit (grits?) my teeth over are those on amazon which are mindlessly spiteful. but that, i fear is a product of the social media age we live in.
Elizabeth Kay said…
I once had a battle between two kids on the Barnes & Noble site - one pasting my book, and promoting another fantasy, and the other doing the opposite. Presumably they used the computers of friends because otherwise they'd have been rumbled. So for a while all I had were one star and five star reviews.It was quite clear they were the same kids, as the spelling mistakes were consistent! The only other thing that really annoys me is when it's clear that the reviewer hasn't read the book, and posts totally inaccurate information about it.
Bill Kirton said…
Thought-provoking as ever, Reb.
My wife and I did a revue show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for a few years in the late 70s. It got great reviews and full houses but, while I still have the recordings that prove people were enjoying themselves, the main things I remember are the occasional individuals sitting in a laughing audience with stony, bored faces. The logical response to that should have been that, since they were so clearly in a tiny minority, they were 'wrong' about their assessment of my material. But, perversely, that's not the way it works and I've no idea why. I think our responses to negative criticism are more complex than the motives of the people who articulate or demonstrate it.
Lydia Bennet said…
Thanks for crediting me Reb, presumably it was my one-star review post you mean, but you've certainly taken the ball and run with it here in your trademark style! We all tend to give more credence to one unpleasant comment than pages of rave reviews, and of course we can't keep acting on every random comment, but you are right about considering whether they've picked out a habit we could change. I'm just wondering who's been giving you these duff grades and on what platform - amazon? But there are always going to be people who don't like what we do. A very successful writer friend just posted this amazon review of her new book: '"The story has an excellent set of twists and turns but the problem is that you know from the first that there are secrets which will be revealed during the novel." The problem is?! And the word 'secret is in the title! Nowt so queer as folk, as they say.
glitter noir said…
Thanks, Wendy, Jan, Elizabeth, Bill and Valerie. So far, the only seriously cruddy Amazon reviews I've had came after a free event--both from the same guy and posted days after the event. No specifics, just 'cheesy writing' and 'sounds like a 40-year-old guy trying to sound like a kid.' Much harder to take were the negative reviews I got from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, etc. for the three books after The Suiting. Eventually, I came to see that those books were compromised by personal/professional problems plus deadline pressures. So, in those cases I listened and learned. I agree with Elizabeth, though, about critics who don't read the books they review. In Canada, I knew a reviewer/journalist who skimmed books while he watched TV and reviewed them while doing his nails.
glitter noir said…
By the way, Bill, the few with bored or stony faces were planted there by your rivals...or they'd forgotten the hemp hoodies they like to smoke while they wear.

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