We’ve all heard the phrase:
If you live by the sword, you’ll die by the sword.
For no one is that truer than for writers. Writers are artists; when we write, we are creating a picture for our readers, a picture made of words. Some may believe that writing can be formulaic or mechanical (an opinion I do not share), but any writing is creative. From the entire text of War and Peace to the one sentence describing tonight’s 8PM sitcom, writing is crafted to interest, engage and invite the reader in. As such, like any creation, it contains a part of the person writing it. All creations are open to interpretation, which lead to opinions, which lead to
>#$&> REVIEWS. <#%&<
Reviews are the bugaboo of any artist. We all struggle to convey that story, that image, that dance or poem we feel inside, but convey to whom? To our audience. We may write the definitive novel of a generation or paint the most iconic picture every conceived, but if it’s hidden in a cabinet so no one sees it, what’s the point? We have, at this rate, only covered half the distance we need to go. Our creations cannot be fully appreciated until they connect with another person.
Therein lies the problem.
I have been handed a copy of what a friend says is the best book he’s ever read; I can’t get past the first chapter. I recommend what I think is the best book on the planet to another friend; she says, “Meh.”
What’s up with that?
How can two individuals have such widely diverse opinions about the same thing? Actually, it’s easy. When we approach a creation, be it a book, a picture, a performance or a building, we are looking at it through filters. We all, as we are growing from childhood to adulthood and beyond, add filters. If you’re bitten by a Weimeraner dog at the age of 5, you may develop a sense that all gray dogs are evil, especially gray dogs with yellow eyes. If you eat too much pecan pie when you’re 8 and get violently ill, you may hate pecans in any form (even if you actually liked the taste of them). By the same token, if you have your first Shirley Temple on your 10th birthday which just happens to be the best day ever of your life so far, you associate Shirley Temples with fun and feelings of happiness. We all have these types of experiences that, over time, transform into opinions and expectations. Because they become reality for us (and we’ve carried them around all our lives), they are transparent to us, but we are still looking through the colored lenses of them at everything around us. My experiences were different than yours; my lenses (filters) are different than yours. We may both be looking at the same thing, but we see it differently.
Obviously these examples are grossly simplified; most associations like this are much more subtle and complex. So much so that we may never know the beginnings of our biases, and in fact we may not even know we have them. But we all have them.
Enter reviews. We’ve created our masterpiece, it’s up on Amazon.com and …. OMG! Someone gave it FIVE stars! Yahoo! I wasn’t the only one who thought the book was good. And look what else they said: “compelling,” “riveting,” or “a must read.” A good review is like warm sunlight starring the heart, like the swelling pride of accomplishment, like the contented satisfaction of a job well done. Basking in this kind of light is validation that all the hard work, the research, the stops and starts, the frustrations―all of it was worthwhile. We can stand tall with our head held high.
This is every author’s dream.
But hold on; here’s another review and they gave it only ONE star! For any writer, this is akin to a knife in the gut. And it gets worse. The review itself uses such words as “trite,” “boring,” or even “terrible,” pretty much the same as twisting said knife in ever vicious ways. We read the review with held breath, wanting to look away but needing to see. Each word is a new wound. Each word lands on us with dark weight, slumping our shoulders, burying us, squeezing the breath from us. The book―and the author by association―is a failure.
This is every author’s nightmare.
I remember back in the late 80’s when I had sent a manuscript to a publisher for consideration. I got it back with the simple, generic “Doesn’t meet our needs” rejection letter, but something else was stuck between pages of the book: the worksheet of a reader. It was handwritten on yellow legal paper, obviously notes jotted hurriedly while reading. It was the most jarring, dismissive, condemning thing I’ve ever read. I know the publisher did not mean to leave that in there; I know it wasn’t meant for me to see, but I did see it. Even now, almost 25 years later, when I don’t even remember which book it was, don’t remember which publisher it was, I still remember how I felt when I read that. I felt eviscerated.
So how do we handle this dichotomy? It would be easy to believe that the positive reviewer was a sensible, intelligent, honest individual with sterling taste, and that the negative reviewer was a narrow-minded, ignorant jerk, but the truth is more likely neither of those. The truth is people are different and they have different opinions. Every reader sees through their own set of lenses, a collection of their own experiences, biases, and expectations. No one ever looks at any creation with a completely objective eye.
I’ve learned to consider reviews carefully. Of course I love the good ones and hate the bad ones, but I have to consider them all. The first thing I might have to do when dealing with a bad one is leave it and go do something else. The initial emotional response to a bad review is not conducive to rational thought. When I feel that I’ve calmed down enough to be rational again, I will go back to the bad review and read it again, but this time I will be open to the reader’s opinion. I will mentally hold the review up next to my book, really take it inside the deepest, truest part of me and see if there is real truth in what was said. Sometimes, as painful as it is to admit that, there might be. Sometimes there isn’t, and I really can dismiss the review as an “off” opinion. Maybe the reader had a bad day that day. Maybe they were expecting something different and didn’t find it in my book. There could be a zillion reasons why someone didn’t like the book, but obviously I can’t write a zillion versions of my book in order to please everyone. I can only write what I believe in, what I think has value, what I enjoy and want to share. Some will like it and some won’t. Fact of life.
As an illustration, just the other day I got word that one of my books has been nominated for a Best Biography award by a military writer’s society. Quite an honor and a very pleasant surprise. That same day I happened to check another booksite for reviews of the same book, and found one that said, “Not worth the price.” Ouch.
You live by the sword and you die by the sword.
But you keep on writing.