“The profession of book-writing makes horse-racing seem like a solid, stable business.” ~ John Steinbeck
I thought it would be appropriate leading off this jumble of ramblings with a quote, since I’ll be using a few for illustration purposes as we go on. Particularly since I thought we could take a look at the bane of the writer’s existence, (especially speculative fiction writers), criticism.
Most writers are not immune to that baneful bug, in fact; none of us are. The disease as caused flame wars before the computer existed, and suicides before the media decided it was a popular method of inspiring sympathy for a just cause. But maybe, with a little perspective, we can take a bit of the sting out of the sharpened tongues which haunt our collective nightmares.
While, as per the above quote, there is no guarantee that our work will inspire hordes of readers to pour cash into our pockets; erect statues in our honor; name libraries after us; nor insist that our boring, out-of-date works be essayed in high school English classes throughout the country, the taking of a single criticism to heart is as silly as the fear of the dust bunnies under the bed. (Especially so if the source of the criticism is “a professional.”)
Consider these criticisms, and who they were directed to:
“As a work of art, it has the same status as a long conversation between two not very bright drunks.” ~ Clive James on Judith Krantz’s The Princess Diaries.
“Virgina Woolfe’s writing is no more than glamorous knitting. I believe she must have a pattern somewhere.” ~ Dame Edith Sitwell.
“Henry James has a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” ~ T.S. Eliot
“Of Dickens’ style it is impossible to speak in praise. It is jerky, ungrammatical, and created by himself in defiance of rules… No young novelist should ever dare to imitate the style of Dickens.” ~ Anthony Trollope
Did you notice that some of that criticism came from equally famous writers? People who would be considered “a professional?” Didn’t seem to make the writer they directed it at vanish into literary oblivion, did it? It may have, if the writer it was directed at took it to heart and acted on it, but, obviously they didn’t.
Given this, how much worse is it to take the critique of someone whose only claim to literary fame is being a professional critic? Have they ever produced a best seller? A hit movie? A Top Ten song? Not to my knowledge they haven’t. So, before you take the word of these “experts” to heart, consider the source.
Now, I’m NOT saying that all criticism is bad. It can inspire, show you where you need to tighten things up, and where you may have screwed up royally. We do know when a critique is right, because we’ll usually say, “Damn, I missed that.” But taking it to heart is probably the most counter productive thing a writer, or any artist for that matter, can do.
As Danielle Steele said:
“A bad review is like baking a cake with all the best ingredients and having someone sit on it.”
Again, referring to my opening quote; no one in this business knows what will capture the public’s imagination, and what won’t. The business of speculative fiction is something of a lottery; and getting pissed off, or depressed at someone who’s opinion shouldn’t matter one whit is just plain silly. At least not if you’ve put in the work, and done the best you can.
As Nathaniel Hawthorne said, “Easy reading is damned hard writing.”
So roll those bones, bust your anus, take your chances, and pan the critics. After all:
“The public is the only critic whose opinion is worth anything at all.” ~ Mark Twain