We’ve all heard the phrase:
If you live by the sword, you’ll die by the
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 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
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
But you keep on writing.