Sunday, June 15, 2008

Thoughts on Criticism and Rejection

Rejection is hard. It gets a little easier as you go on, but not by much. The sooner you start to devise little coping strategies to keep your ego patched, the better off you'll be.

Whenever I got to feeling down over a rejection (or, later on, a snarky Amazon review), I thought: Well, the person who is criticizing me [an editor, reviewer, or random reader] can’t do what I’m doing--they don’t have the guts, or the talent, or either of the two. This may sound snarky in its own right, and maybe it is. It also isn’t fair to all those wonderfully talented editors and agents out there, those midwives and shepherds of the literary world. Then again, I’ve found that the most talented editors and agents in the business do not write rejection letters that leave you feeling like a sack of elephant crap. Those are the letters--tactful, and sometimes even very encouraging--that spur you on.

This attitude I’m talking about--THEY can’t do it and therefore I should take their criticism with a grain of salt--is merely a coping strategy. I'm not talking about the criticism that you know in your heart is wise and right on the money. This is just something to keep in mind when you start feeling like you’ve seriously overestimated your own talent. Even if you’ve written the sloppiest, most derivative novel ever put to paper, a manuscript that will never see publication, you’ve still accomplished more than most folks ever do.

I'm not discounting the job of reviewers. Literary criticism is as necessary as literature itself, and can be every bit as enjoyable to read. It just drives me nuts when I read a snarky review. It's like when a reviewer takes pains to include some line about Mary Modern not holding a candle to the original Frankenstein. First of all, it's NOT Frankenstein, nor is it a retelling. Nobody was claiming on the dust jacket or marketing materials that I wrote an instant classic. It comes off sounding like a jab, and it's completely unnecessary. In another case, a reviewer dismissed my characters as ciphers--never mind that I can tell you every character in that book is based on a person (or, more often, a series of people) I've known in real life. As I read that particular review, it was abundantly clear that the reviewer had decided not to like my book before he even cracked the spine.

You definitely start to sense a bit of envy between the lines of these reviews sometimes. Perhaps the reviewer is himself a frustrated fiction writer, so he says your work is derivative, mediocre, or what have you. Mind you, I'm not whining or being underhandedly smug here--I'm saying this because I often felt this impulse myself before I was published. I have taken notice of several literary catfights in recent years, most memorably between Laura Miller of Salon.com and the novelist Chuck Palahniuk. She wrote a review of Diary in 2003 that was so unbelievably negative it was downright undignified, and he responded with a letter to the editor that had me jumping with glee:
I have never responded to a review, perhaps because I've never gotten such a cruel and mean-spirited one.

Please send me a copy of your latest book. I'd love to read it.

Until you can create something that captivates people, I'd invite you to just shut up. It's easy to attack and destroy an act of creation. It's a lot more difficult to perform one. I'd also invite you to read the reviews Fitzgerald got for "Gatsby" from dull, sad, bitter people -- like yourself.

Amen, Chuck.

(By the way, I haven't read any of Mr. Palahniuk's novels, but I don't care if Diary was the worst piece of tripe published in this or any other century; nothing could justify the writing of probably the nastiest, snarkiest piece of "journalism" I have ever read. Even this Salon critic's less controversial columns have really annoyed me from time to time--like when she dismissed David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas--which is an utterly sublime novel--as an albeit-fun pastiche. She's sounding more and more like a frustrated novelist, eh?)

Anyway, the upshot of all this is that one must read a book review with a critical eye. Sometimes reviewers are needlessly harsh for reasons that have more to do with them than the author, and sometimes there are good reviews of mediocre books written by acolytes. Sometimes there are reviews of books by great writers that are criticized by novelists whose work is patently inferior, or a novelist who is insecure about her own place in the literary canon and acts on an urge to cut down a fellow author. And sometimes, once in a blue moon it seems, there's a thoughtful review written by someone with no angle at all.

But that's not the real reason I've stopped reading book reviews. The real reason is that avoiding them is another coping strategy for me--otherwise I'd be reading glowing reviews of books with rehashed plots thinking, Damn it, why did this newspaper ignore my book? Also, I stopped reading the Amazon/Librarything/whatever reviews not too long after Mary Modern was published. There are some really ridiculous ones out there--there's at least one two-star review that spells my name "Deangeiiis," and says my book was poorly edited without even bothering to make a logical case for the assertion. WHO takes these people seriously? Who? Not me, that's who--those crappy, illogical, useless reviews can only raise my blood pressure.

1 comment:

Kate said...

I definitely think it's hard to know when to accept criticism as valid and when to realize that people are being overly or unfairly harsh because of their own insecurities (or simply because they're a hothead or crazy). I'm not writing books, but I find that I always get down on myself whenever I get criticism at my jobs. I need to work on the self-esteem, but it really is hard to know the difference between valid and invalid criticism.