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