Dealing with criticism: thoughts and advice from literary titans

 

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Photography by Graham Holliday, via Flickr Creative Commons.

It’s a near universally accepted truth: criticism can be hard to take. Seeing, reading or hearing someone deconstruct what you’ve written is strange at the best of times; and when the feedback you receive is negative, well that can feel like a sucker punch right to the lower intestine. This is true not only for aspiring writers, receiving the first of many rejection letters and emails from literary agents and publishing houses; it’s also true or established authors (if you don’t believe us, just ask master story teller Robert Ford, who was so upset about a review of his book The Sportswriter, he took a gun and shot bullets through one of said reviewers own books).

Indeed, in a 2003 interview with The Guardian, Ford explained his thinking behind shooting Alice Hoffman’s book. He said:

“People had written me off. When the book came out it just took a while to make its way. It didn’t happen overnight. It got bad reviews – that’s the book that Alice Hoffman wrote nasty things about in the New York Times […] my wife shot it [Hoffman’s book] first. She took the book out into the back yard, and shot it. But people make such a big deal out of it – shooting a book – it’s not like I shot her.”

Of course, not every author would endorse shooting holes in books of any kind, even if they have been written by someone who has just sent you a rejection letter for your first novel, or by a “nasty” New York Times reviewer.

In fact, some might even suggest a more thoughtful response is required. How to relate to criticism in a healthy way is one of the essential survival skills of the creative spirit.

So what exactly is the best way to deal with, and respond to, criticism? Well, fortunately, this has been answered by some of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, including Kurt Vonnegut, Truman Capote and Ray Bradbury.

And here are those answers, collected lovingly by your comrades here at Nothing in the Rulebook. Enjoy!

 

  1. Margaret Atwood

“Critics haven’t been any harder on me than they usually are. If anything, maybe a bit easier; I think they’re getting used to having me around. Growing a few wrinkles helps. Then they can think you’re a sort of eminent fixture. I still get a few young folks who want to make their reputations by shooting me down. Any writer who has been around for a while gets a certain amount of that. I was very intolerant as a youthful person. It’s almost necessary, that intolerance; young people need it in order to establish credentials for themselves.”

  1. Truman Capote

“Most of all, I believe in hardening yourself against opinion… There is one piece of advice I strongly urge: never demean yourself by talking back to a critic, never. Write those letters to the editor in your head, but don’t put them on paper.”

  1. Aldous Huxley

“[Reviews] have never had any effect on me, for the simple reason that I’ve never read them. I’ve never made a point of writing for any particular person or audience; I’ve simply tried to do the best job I could and let it go at that. The critics don’t interest me because they’re concerned with what’s past and done, while I’m concerned with what comes next.”

  1. William Styron

“I think it’s unfortunate to have critics for friends. Suppose you write something that stinks, what are they going to say in a review? Say it stinks? So if they’re honest they do, and if you were friends you’re still friends, but the knowledge of your lousy writing and their articulate admission of it will be always something between the two of you, like the knowledge between a man and his wife of some shady adultery.

There’s only one person a writer should listen to, pay any attention to. It’s not any damn critic. It’s the reader. And that doesn’t mean any compromise or sell-out. The writer must criticize his own work as a reader. Every day I pick up the story or whatever it is I’ve been working on and read it through. If I enjoy it as a reader then I know I”m getting along all right.”

  1. John Irving

“Listen very carefully to the first criticism of your work. Note just what it is about your work that the reviewers don’t like; it may be the only thing in your work that is original and worthwhile.”

  1. Kurt Vonnegut

“I never felt worse in my life [when reading negative reviews]. I felt as though I were sleeping standing up on a box car in Germany again. All of a sudden, critics wanted me squashed like a bug… It was dishonorable enough that I perverted art for money. I then topped that felony by becoming, as I say, fabulously well-to-do. Well, that’s just too damn bad for me and for everybody. I’m completely in print, so we’re all stuck with me and stuck with my books.”

  1. Toni Morrison

“I read [reviews]; I read everything. I read everything written about me that I see. I have to know what’s going on! It’s not about me or my work, it’s about what is going on. I have to get a sense, particularly or what’s going on with women’s work or African American work, contemporary work. I teach a literature course, so I read any information that’s going to help me teach. […] unflattering reviews are painful for short periods of time; the badly written ones are deeply, deeply insulting. That reviewer took no time to really read the book […] There are authors who find it healthier for them, in their creative process, to just not look at any reviews, or bad reviews, or they have them filtered, because sometimes they are toxic for them. I don’t agree with that kind of isolation.”

  1. Ray Bradbury

  “The critics are generally wrong, or they’re fifteen, twenty years late. It’s a great shame. They miss out on a lot. Why the fiction of ideas should be so neglected is beyond me. I can’t explain it, except in terms of intellectual snobbery […] there was a time when I wanted recognition across the board from critics and intellectuals. […] But not anymore. If I’d found out that Norman Mailer liked me, I’d have killed myself. I think he was too hung up. I’m glad Kurt Vonnegut didn’t like me either. He had problems, terrible problems. He couldn’t see the world the way I see it. I suppose I’m too much Pollyanna, he was too much Cassandra. Actually I prefer to see myself as the Janus, the two-faced god who is half Pollyanna and half Cassandra, warning of the future and perhaps living too much in the past—a combination of both. But I don’t think I’m too overoptimistic. […] I don’t tell anyone how to write and no one tells me.”

  1. Neil Gaiman

“When things get tough, this is what you should do: Make good art. […]Someone on the Internet thinks what you’re doing is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before — make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, eventually time will take the sting away, and that doesn’t even matter. Do what only you can do best: Make good art. Make it on the bad days, make it on the good days, too. […] And make mistakes! If you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world. You’re doing things you’ve never done before, and more importantly, you’re Doing Something.”

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