Surviving Criticism

In the play Lady Windermere’s Fan, Oscar Wilde’s Lord Darlington famously says, “A critic knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” This assessment may seem harsh to some, but I would wager that anyone who has ever created anything for public consumption might be nodding their heads just a little.

As a writer, reviews of the negative persuasion are more or less inevitable. And as I approach the one-year anniversary of my debut novel and the upcoming publication of its sequel, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the role of critics in the creation of art, and my relationship as a creator with that criticism.

I’ll be honest–when my book first hit shelves, I obsessively read every review I could find. Kirkus. SLJ. Booklist. Amazon. Goodreads. Book blogs. Bookstagram. If someone was writing about my book, I was going to read it. And honestly, most of the reviews skewed toward the favorable–not all bestowed glowing 5 stars, but most were decent. But every now and then I’d find a real stinker–you know the kind of review I’m talking about. The kind of review that says they would have cared more about the characters if they’d all died. The kind of review that implies the only good thing about the book was when it ended. The kind of review that obsessively lists everything the reader hated about it, in vicious detail.

And I started noticing something. Every negative review I read counted for more in my head than every positive review–it was like the bad completely outweighed the good. And every negative review I read made it that much harder for me to write.

So I put on my big girl pants and stopped reading reviews. I blocked Goodreads in my browser. I asked my editors to stop forwarding me trade reviews. I deleted the google alert for my book title. And I breathed a sigh of relief. But simply going out of my way to not find reviews doesn’t mean they don’t find me. In this age of social media and author-reader interaction, it’s really hard not to stumble across criticism. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been tagged on Twitter or Instagram for really scathing reviews. It can be almost day-ruining to click on a lovely bookstagram photo, only to scroll down to the caption and get slapped in the face with vitriol directed toward a novel you spent years of your life and buckets of love creating.

And I’d be lying if I said that hasn’t taken a toll on my writing. I’ll be in a flow and a really great metaphor will pop into my head. But now, that metaphor will be accompanied by all the critical junk I’ve read: the penchant for metaphor is distracting or ugh, I can’t stand purple prose or the writing was so flowery I DNF’ed 10 pages in. Dialogue, character development, action sequences–it’s gotten to a point where it’s a challenge not to second-guess every element of my own writing.

Okay. Deep breath. And…segue.

I listen to the local classical music radio station a lot when I’m in the car. Recently, the radio host shared an anecdote about the composer Rachmaninoff. Apparently, Rachmaninoff’s first symphony to be publicly performed was received so poorly by critics that he fled the concert hall amid catcalls. One critic compared the piece to the ten plagues of Egypt. “If there was a conservatory in hell, Rachmaninoff would get the first prize for his symphony, so devilish are the discords he places before us,” newspaper critic Cesar Cui sneered.

Rachmaninoff was crushed, and stopped composing completely.

“Something within me snapped,” the composer wrote. “All my self-confidence broke down….A paralyzing apathy possessed me. I did nothing at all and found no pleasure in anything.”

It was three years before he was able to compose again. It was ten years before he attempted another symphony. But the piece he composed after his depressed hiatus was his Piano Concerto no. 2, arguably his most famous piece and incidentally, my favorite. He would continue composing for another 45 years, right up until his death.

I’m not sure I’ll ever totally get over receiving negative reviews. But that’s okay. I just need to learn to pick myself up after getting knocked down. To turn the other cheek. To let the good outweigh the bad, instead of the other way around. And most importantly, I just have to keep writing. Because the only way to drown out the critics is to let my work speak for itself.

“Once in a golden hour 
I cast to earth a seed. 
Up there came a flower, 
The people said, a weed.” 
― Alfred Lord Tennyson

Critique Partners in Crime

If you’ve been in the publishing industry for any length of time, you’ll probably recognize the phrase critique partner. For those of you who haven’t, a critique partner (commonly abbreviate to CP) is an invaluable asset to any writer at any and every stage in their career. Usually another author or publishing professional, a CP offers up their time and expertise to critique your manuscript/story/poem/etc in exchange for your time and expertise in doing the same for them. While a CP can sometimes play the role of beta reader (an avid reader who reads your MS and tells you whether it is any good), ideally the relationship is deeper and broader.

giphy1I feel like I’m not explaining this well. Okay, how’s this? A CP is like an unholy (or maybe holy) alliance between a friend, a colleague, a work wife/husband, a therapist, a critic, and a cheerleader. Having and being a CP is messy. It’s complicated. And it is wildly, wildly important to a writer’s growth and success in this often isolating business of being an author.

This week, I experienced both ends of the CP relationship with two different CPs. First, I had the great pleasure of reading our very own Shauna’s forthcoming novel Blackbird (which will incidentally knock y’all’s socks off) and offering feedback. And second, I shared my very recently finished and terribly rough first draft of my Swan Lake retelling with a different CP. They were two very different experiences, but they both reminded me of just how important it is to not only have CPs, but to actually share work with them.

Not all CPs are created equal, but here are a few things I’d look out for when finding someone to share work with!

  1. Someone who isn’t afraid to be honest. It’s literally right there in the name: critique partner. Not white-lie-to-guard-your-ego partner. Not even pull-their-punches partner. You know that one friend who you always take shopping because she’ll actually tell you if those pants make your butt look big? Yeah, that’s what you need from a CP. Because if they can’t be honest in their criticism, it’s not going to push you to be better, or work harder, or be honest with yourself.

    One caveat: do draw the line at nasty. There’s no call to be unnecessarily harsh, that’s not useful to anyone either.

  2. giphy2Someone who will be your cheerleader. Does this seem counter-intuitive? It’s really not. Your CPs also need to love your work kind of unconditionally, regardless off whether it’s a flaming trash pile of a first draft or a polished to near-perfect-sheen soon-to-be published work of art. The ultimate goal of a CP relationship is making each other better–if someone hates your work, what’s the point?
  3. Someone who understands (if not shares) your genre, voice, aesthetic, etc. Similar to the above, it’s a waste of their time and yours if they don’t get what you’re trying to accomplish. Maybe you write fast-paced action thrillers and they write steamy romance. That can totally work (and might honestly give you a different perspective from a CP who writes in your genre) but if their only criticism is that there aren’t enough love scenes, you might want to reconsider.
  4. giphy3Someone who can brainstorm with you. Now, this is a big ask, and you might not find this in every CP you build a relationship with–and that’s okay! But a great CP isn’t just an editor, or even a beta reader, although it’s certainly useful if they have a decent grasp of grammar, sentence structure, and plot. Ideally, they’re also someone who you can bounce your hair-brained ideas off of, who won’t say “but,” but maybe “ooh, and–!” Someone who spitballs scenarios about your sequel not because they feel like they know better than you but because they’re just so invested in your characters. Someone who sees through the disordered jumble of your nonsense first drafts to the story you didn’t know you were trying to tell.

Now, if you’re read to find your OTCP (One (or several!) True Critique Partner), here are a few resources to set you on your way! (If you’re really at a loss, Twitter is a great place to start, as are writer blogs and genre-specific interest groups! You can never go wrong with NaNoWriMo either!)

Absolute Write

Critique Circle 

Critique.org

Scribophile

 

Magical Realism or Fantasy?

I read a lot. And although these days I often stick to the genre that I myself write in (i.e. YA fantasy) I do try to read widely and deeply in a variety of genres. What this usually means in practice is that in between books I actively seek out, I pick up random books at used bookstores or I take a stab at whatever the husband has just finished reading.

Neil Gaiman's latest novel.
Neil Gaiman’s latest novel.

This month, I read Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart back to back. While these two books come from very different places topically and thematically, they do share one distinction; they have both been assigned the rather particular designation of magical realism. And as I pondered the metaphysical oceans, metaphorical cats, and mirrored worlds that appear in both of these books under different guises, I couldn’t help but think to myself: What exactly is the difference between magical realism and straight up fantasy?

Many authors and readers don’t see a big difference. Terry Pratchett once quipped that magical realism “is like a polite way of saying you write fantasy.” Gene Wolfe humorously said that “magic realism is fantasy written by people who speak Spanish” (referring, of course, to seminal works of magical realism by authors like Gabriel García Márquez and Luis Borges). On the other hand, some critics and readers see a massive difference in terms of literary “quality;” magical realist authors like Murakami, Kafka, and García Márquez have been accepted by critics into the pantheon of literary writers, while major fantasy authors like J. K. Rowling and even Neil Gaiman are solidly considered “genre literature.”

Fantasy or magical realism? You be the judge!
Fantasy or magical realism?
You be the judge!

In my mind, I think the difference between the genres comes down to rules. In traditional fantasy, the author presents a whole new universe to the reader, complete with a system of logic, physical laws, and metaphysical laws that must be followed. Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind  is a great example of a systematic fantasy; the magic his characters employ is bounded by a comprehensive system of checks and balances that rivals real-world physics in complexity.

In magical realism, however, magical elements blend with reality to create an atmosphere that is at once familiar and nonsensical, in an effort to access a deeper understanding of reality. These magical elements are presented in a straightforward manner with no effort made to explain how they could be occurring in the “real” world. In García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, bizarre things like ghosts, heavenly ascensions, insomnia plagues, telekinesis, prophecies and family members returning from the dead are mentioned without consequence or special significance.

In short, fantasy relies on verisimilitude, or the extent to which a narrative appears likely or plausible. Fantasy presents its readers with a strange world that, by merit of its laws, could be real. Magical realism, on the other hand, challenges our knowledge of what is “real” by introducing unlikely or implausible elements to a seemingly normal universe. The world we thought we knew is gone, replaced by a simulacrum, a fake world that, by virtue of its allegorical existence, leads us closer to truth.

Magical realism is often more surreal than fantasy
Magical realism is often more surreal than fantasy

There is a continuum, of course. Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind falls on one end of the spectrum, a pure systemic fantasy. Nearly every fantastical element–magic, prophecy, myth–is explained and categorized. Something like Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle exists close to the other end of the spectrum. The author makes almost no effort to explain the fantastical elements; empty wells and missing wives and real dreams exist as perfect allegories, existing insofar as the reader deems them meaningful.

And books like Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians and Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife? Those books exist somewhere in the middle, treading the uncanny valley between reality and fantasy.

But let’s be honest; whether it’s pure magical realism, pure fantasy, or somewhere in between, I’ll still read it.

Where do you think the line between fantasy and magical realism is drawn? Do you have any favorite magical realism books or authors? Share your comments below!