So, as I mentioned on Twitter, if you’re looking for a good way to maintain momentum while trying to finish a novel, it turns out that reading negative reviews of your previous work is a pretty bad idea. I did this to myself recently, and on some level deserve it, because I was procrastinating doing something else. Around the same time, an author friend of mine was wondering on Facebook about when you should listen to someone’s critique of your work, and when you should say ‘no, the way I’ve done it is right, even if they don’t like it.’ So I’ve been thinking about critique and criticism, the last couple days.
There’s no denying that it stings, a little, when someone says your stuff is bad or that there’s a part of it that they don’t like. Ideally, everyone who read my stories would love them, and it’s always going to be at least a little bit of a drag to have someone say that this thing you created, that has so much of yourself in it, didn’t work for them. I think that’s also where the impulse to get defensive over criticism comes from – essentially, we’d like to convince everyone that no, they really did like our work after all.
Obviously that’s not a useful response, and I basically agree with Neil Gaiman that it’s best never to respond to one’s critics. In part because you can tear yourself to pieces in fruitless arguments, and also because people are entitled to their response and their opinion.
This is one of the hard things: not everyone is going to like what you wrote, not ever. Name any book, movie, TV show, no matter how critically acclaimed and beloved, and if we spent a little time digging around we’d easily find some people who don’t like it for various reasons. Just the same as nearly any book, movie, or TV show you care to name is someone’s favourite. People like different things, they often do so for intensely personal and intrinsic reasons, and you can’t change it. I can acknowledge that the objective quality of Breaking Bad appears to have been very high, but I just didn’t like it. (I could explain why, but it’s not important) So, part of being an artist and putting your work out there is that some people won’t like it. They’re neither right nor wrong, except in the sense that they like what they like and your stuff was not it, this time.
So you have to learn not to listen, a little, or (especially in person) to listen politely, and then to let it roll off. It’s ok to disagree about what works or doesn’t work in something as subjective as art, and sometimes a writer and reader are just not suited for each other. You move on. A big part of it, I think, is developing confidence in your work and in yourself as a writer, that yes, you’re good at this, and yes, your stuff is good, having that belief in what you created and how you wanted to write it. Not everyone will like it, but that doesn’t make what you did wrong. It’s good the way you did it, and more importantly, it’s the way you want it to be, and that’s important. Developing that confidence is hard. I’m still very much ‘work in progress’ on that one.
The even harder thing, though, is that sometimes you do want to listen, at least a little. You have to try to be honest enough about your own work (even as you’re confident in its quality) to be open to the idea that there are flaws in it that maybe someone else saw better than you were able to, and that there are ways you could either do that particular piece better or to do the next one better. Because it’s good, and you know that, but it’s not perfect. With some assistance, it can be improved.
That kind of usefully critical opinion is invaluable, which is why readers who will look at your stuff and tell you the truth about it in a useful way are such a precious resource. It is why I am so grateful to the Eager Volunteers who have helped me with my writing. I know they’ve found problems where I thought there weren’t any and my writing has been better because of it. I imagine I got to the point where I have things published because of it. So yes, sometimes you do need to listen.
Which brings us to the very hardest part, which is distinguishing between those times. Knowing when to let a particular opinion slide away and when to pick it up and try to work with it. I think some of that is knowing and trusting where the opinion comes from, and some of it is probably just another of those things we continually have to work on, as artists. I’m not really great at it, yet, which is part of why I can read a negative review and get a bit dragged by it, for a while, although I’m at least at the point where I can talk myself out of it relatively quickly.
Anyway, this is all dangerously close to advice, but honestly this is mostly me talking myself through this thought process again. Which I guess is what a blog is for. Thank you, as ever, for reading.