As a writer, you’ll occasionally face criticism. It comes with the territory. Sometimes it’s in the form of private feedback, whether from beta readers or commissioning editors, other times it’s a review of your work published in a newspaper or on a website. Besides the latter’s public nature, this is no different from people in other professions who regularly have to deal with performance reviews, be they accountants, salespeople or plumbers.
These reviews can take the form of a formal assessment (achievement of sales targets, budgets, service standards etc.) or be more informal in nature (haggling over a bill where the work performed was perceived to be sub-standard). Sure, the appraisal in the typical workplace is usually conducted by someone you know (don’t know if that’s worse), but random strangers can also play a role (think of trucks sporting phone numbers that invite other road users to comment on the driver’s proficiency, or service personnel who are rated by anonymous clients in customer satisfaction surveys).
Fact is, writers aren’t special. They get the same crap flung at them that most people have to deal with in the workplace. Even stay-at-home mothers occasionally receive unsolicited appraisals of their child-rearing skills (e.g. emotional teenagers declaring ‘you’re the worst mom in the world’ when family procurement decisions clash with their desire for improved social status).
Okay, so judging any form of writing (or art) is a subjective exercise. There’s no sales target to meet. No cost cutting objective to measure. No turnaround time to record. The question is much simpler, though at the same time much more complex. Did the reader enjoy the book? Was the reader enriched, entertained or possibly just sufficiently distracted by the tale that was presented? To some degree, this will depend on the reader’s personal experiences, tastes and world views. The feminist will in all likelihood not relish a boys’ own adventure story; the chauvinist might eschew romance novels, and the hardcore atheist might steer clear of religion-based fiction (although sometimes – and that’s the wonderfully unpredictable nature of literature – these ‘rules of attraction’ don’t hold true). At the end of the day, though, we are all judged. Whatever we do – or attempt to do – people will have opinions.
If you venture onto Amazon’s website, you’ll quickly believe the old maxim of ‘everyone’s a critic’. The internet has democratized the critiquing process and given everyone a voice. And in this sea of voices, there are no sacred cows. The Old Man and the Sea, a timeless classic (winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1953, cited in the Nobel Prize award) and one of my favorite Hemingway novels, for example, has 78 (78!!) one star reviews on Amazon, including this little gem:
“Ernest Hemmingway (sic) should have talked about what life was like in Cuba. Instead we are left to wonder, who is this old man? Why doesn’t he just retire from fishing? What is wrong with this boy’s parents and why do they allow him to spend all of his time with a strange old man? If you would like me to sum up this book very quickly, I could do it easily. You are an old man: The End.”
Ironically, the book is about the nobility of struggle; about trying to succeed against all odds.
But perhaps the style of old classics could alienate some modern readers, I hear some of you suggest. Fine. Let’s use a more recent example, then. What about Atonement by Ian McEwan, the highly praised novel shortlisted for the 2001 Booker Prize and named by Time magazine as one of the all-time 100 greatest novels? Well, despite all the accolades it received, Atonement attracted 88 one star reviews on Amazon, including this scathing assessment from ‘justsomeguy’:
“…It is so utterly wordy that getting through it feels like you’re being sucked back by each phrase like a swamp. Swampy. This book is swampy. I couldn’t get through it. It is so over the top in explaining the minute details of things that you forget what the hell the point of it all is. Many times I had to re-read passages to understand what was going on. It’s a muddy mess of a book, and I threw it out. “National Bestseller” my left cheek!”
And mean-spirited reviews are by no means restricted to the armchair critics on Amazon. Many professional reviewers, published in ‘respected’ publications, have stuck their poison pens in the eyeballs of big-name writers. Take this review of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, for instance, which takes a ‘two birds with one stone’ approach to vitriol:
“This is easily one of the worst books I’ve ever read. And bear in mind that I’ve read John Grisham.”
Truth is, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. At best, you can hope to please some of the people some of the time. So, whatever your occupation happens to be, always remember this quote from a speech President Theodore Roosevelt delivered in 1910.
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”