The other day a writer friend wondered aloud — that is to say, on Facebook — how others handled receiving a nasty, one-star review. The support poured in, with the usual advice about not taking it to heart, trying to forget about, being grateful that a reader cared enough to post anything, etc.
Here in Karbohemia it got us wondering how anyone in these modern times manages to successfully launch or maintain a career that requires self-discipline and sustained concentration in the face of non-stop public reaction (whether good, bad, or the unhinged musings of the tin foil hat crowd.) I’m talking about writing, but only because it’s the tiny, cobwebby corner of the culture with which I’m most familiar.
The reason I try not to log on first thing in the morning isn’t because I worry about wandering into the Bermuda Triangle of Brain Pickings, only to emerge hours later to find that the morning has vanished, but because even though I’ve turned off everything I can possibly turn off relating to Goodreads, an alert always slips through — the one informing me that someone has dropped a one-star bomb, with the accompanying explosive “review” proclaiming my book to be the lamest lame-o lame thing they’ve ever read.
This sets the tone for my day.
When I published my first novel in 1990 my editor’s simple, brilliant advice about reviews was this: don’t read the bad ones. Around pub date she might call me up during a free moment (editors had free moments back then) and report, “The Kirkus came in. It was mostly a summary, but don’t worry, they hate everyone.” Or, “The Bodunk Daily Bee reviewed the book. They liked what you did with the mother and think you have a knack for dialogue.” Only when the review was a complete rave would she read the whole thing aloud. Then, weeks later, I would receive a fat manila envelope of clippings, which I promptly threw away.
This relative radio silence made my writer’s life lonely but productive. Except for the month or so after a book came out, it was like living in a permanent off-the-grid writing retreat. The only daily challenge was making my word count and hoping it didn’t completely suck.
Those days are long gone.There is no clinging to the good and ignoring the bad. For that matter, there are very few meaningful pieces of criticism at all, good or bad. The Bodunk Daily Bee is out of business, and most writers are grateful for being hated on a little by Kirkus, because at least the minions at Kirkus know how to write a proper English sentence. Instead, there are reader reviews, like the one I received on Amazon for The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: “This is the worst book ever written.” (This one is sort of a badge of honor: not the worst book ever published, but ever written. As idiotic proclamations go, I defy you to find a better one.)
I’m not alone, of course. George Orwell’s 1984l also received a one star review on Amazon. “This book isn’t as good as Harry Potter in MY opinion, and no one can refute me. Tastes are relative!”
How then, in the face of all of this continuous opinion-spewing, do we keep our creative wits about us?
I have this saying from Georgia O’Keeffe taped over my desk:
“I make up my own mind about it [the work] – how good or bad or indifferent it is. After that, critics can write what they please. I have already settled it for myself so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free.”
There’s so much to buoy us up here. First, O’Keeffe’s basic regard for her own thoughts. What she believed about her work was paramount.
O’Keeffe ignored the critics, but also had to ignore the opinions of her husband. Father of modern photography and famous gallerist Alfred Stieglitz never really liked anything Georgia did after the charcoal abstractions he fell in love with when he first discovered her and her work in 1915.
Years later, when Stieglitz first spied her painting one of her big flowers, he said, “You’re kidding, right?”
When she first ventured to New Mexico and shipped a barrel of cow skulls and dried bones back to New York, to use as elements in the still life paintings she would make in the winter, he thought she had lost her marbles.
But O’Keeffe respected her own opinion first and foremost, and was also willing to accept that occasional bad or mediocre work was simply part of the process. She knew that not everything she made would be genius, but that didn’t stop her. Even though she suspected not everyone would like it.
If you can’t channel O’Keeffe, it seems to me the best approach to publishing a book is the same one you employ during a blood draw: look away and hope for the best.
sources: Georgia O’Keeffe, www.pbs.org; No. XII Special, 1916/1917, Metropolitan Museum of Art; Black Iris, 1926, Metropolitan Museum of Art