On Critics, Critiques, and the Relative Weight of Criticism

Guest columnist, Graeme Cameron, is welcomed back to AuthorScoop.  So is his opinion and take on what to take away from praise and scalds.

You’re Only As Good As Your Last Prolonged Period Of Self-Loathing

Legend has it that wisdom and humility go hand in hand. One cannot learn, they say, but by one’s own mistakes – and one cannot learn by one’s mistakes if one isn’t willing to listen when one’s mistakes are pointed out to one.

Of course, this is music to the ears of those who never make mistakes, but to the mere mortals among us – particularly those who believe we’re only as good as our last review – it presents quite the most daunting challenge. You might have thought the worst was over when you bled your final full stop. You might even have come to terms with the fact that, the moment they slipped from your fingers and into the hands of your beta readers, the innermost workings of your mind, guarded so jealously through all those years of artistic frustration, were suddenly and irreversibly exposed to ridicule. But ironically, the one thing you haven’t quite counted on, no matter how many times you’ve dreamed that thrilling little rags-to-riches daydream, is the most inevitable part of the whole damn drama: sooner or later, a professional is going to read your book. And he’s going to tell you it’s shit.

Now, if you thrashed out your novel during NANO month and hammered it clumsily into shape over breakfast, in your heart of hearts you probably don’t feel too down about this. But if it’s the culmination of two years of backbreaking, hair-pulling, sweat-dripping labour, played out to the tune of “we love you, you’re awesome, you’re gonna be a superstar,” it can feel so crushing a defeat that you might very well throw down your quill and vow never to utter another word.

Sadly, though, it should come as no surprise. You chose your beta readers for their disinclination to blow smoke up your ass – something of which you’re confident because, well, they’ve never been afraid to disagree with you on every subject you’ve ever discussed, have they? Throughout this laborious exercise, as you nurtured your fledgling manuscript to cater to the whims of your audience, you repeatedly paused to question whether you really were as unstoppable as they said you were. But despite the problems you knew ran rampant throughout the pages of your masterpiece, the compliments just kept on coming, right up until that glorious sunny day when you could finally scribble ‘The End’ across your magnificent weapon of mass entertainment and unleash it about your plan for world domination. And yet suddenly here’s your none-too-prospective agent, telling you everything that, deep down, you already knew was so badly wrong with your novel.

‘It doesn’t work as a comedy,’ he says, ‘because it’s funnier than the subject matter dictates it should be. And it doesn’t work as a thriller because the structure doesn’t allow you to properly document the events. And it doesn’t work as a crime novel because the antagonists are so stupid. And it doesn’t work as lit fic because it’s not existential enough. And all these other bits I’ve highlighted make no damn sense whatsoever. Go away, and call me when you’ve written the book you’re capable of writing, or when Hell freezes over, whichever comes second.’

Not so invincible now, are you?

And therein lies the fatal flaw in the shimmering facade of critiquing. Throughout the writing process, mindful of the importance of constructive criticism, you’ve pandered to the voices murmuring adulation and auctions and six-figure advances, and carefully steered your story around any obstacle of doubt. Taking your carefully-selected circle of confidants as representative of the readership at large, you’ve cunningly engineered a product that’s guaranteed to charm the pants off every agent, editor, buyer and bookstore browser in the civilised world. You’ve even half-convinced yourself that you believe your own hype. And now, six-to-eight weeks later, someone you don’t know from Adam has just pointed out the inconvenient truth: that instead of telling the story you had in your head, you’ve written the book that a gaggle of acquaintances wanted to read – and they’ve already read it.

When this finally happened to me, after a handful of those unfathomable ‘I want to have your babies, but a novel this powerful could literally bring about the end of all life on Earth’-type rejections, it burned with the fire of a thousand torpedoed careers. I knew the man was right – he’d only confirmed my darkest suspicions, after all – and that could only mean one thing: his kids were now scribbling on the back of my life’s work because I was a washed-up, talentless hack.

And what a blessing that turned out to be.

It would have been easy to dismiss the agent’s assessment based on that age-old adage about opinions: everybody’s got one, and most of them are assholes, I think it goes. After all, those other lovely people said the book was great, didn’t they? Ultimately, though, while we’re taught to view everyone’s opinion as equally valid, there’s a strong argument against favouring the person who’s willing to spend $20 on your book over the one you’re asking to stake a career on it. The latter, in case we’re unclear, being the one who wrote it.

No, instead I did what any straight-thinking hack-elect should do: I threw myself into rewriting the novel, quickly discovered that I hated everything about it, myself and all of you, and then quietly wept for six months. And then, when I’d toyed just long enough with the idea of binning the whole thing and starting anew, I picked it up and I read it.

Now, it’s impossible to judge your own work while it’s still in progress because, quite simply, regardless of what’s actually written on the page or how nonsensical it might be to another reader, you’ll still remember exactly what you meant when you wrote it. You’ll read every word in the context of your own intentions, and unless you pick up a couple of spelling mistakes in the process, that’s an unspeakable waste of time.

Give it six months, however, and you’ll find that you’ve gained the amazing ability to look at your own work through the eyes of a real-life reader. And for me at least, this proved a revelation. Suddenly, I was able to acknowledge with some degree of certainty that, yes, actually I can write pretty well, thank you very much. And while those problems that were so brutally highlighted by Agent X were still very much in residence, given this renewed clarity of vision it turned out that they were all eminently fixable. And most importantly of all, I fell in love with it all over again.

What, then, would I have you take away from all this? Well, at the risk of placing it in some infamously ill-advised company, my plan of attack is three-pronged…

Listen to your readers, but don’t let them put you off your aim. Seek acceptance, but embrace your most ferocious rejections. And above all, if you’re only as good as your last review, make sure you set aside some time to write yourself a good one.

3 Responses to “On Critics, Critiques, and the Relative Weight of Criticism”

  1. Bird of Prey Says:

    Based on what I’ve read here, I’m willing to bet that Agent X is an idiot. I’d probably publish anything you wrote, but what the hell do I know?

    I don’t mind reworking to a degree, but once adequately presented, I think a novel must finally stand on its own merit as a painting or a sculpture would, left to be examined or abandoned. Because appeal is a question of taste, it’s nearly impossible to be unique and published without a stroke of luck: the right person at the right time or connections. These days, the definition of a great writer is ninety percent promotion.

    I’ve been through a number of agents and publishers with all kinds of radically different suggestions, criticisms and accolades, unwilling to represent the work unless. . . . Ultimately, it’s all bs, unless it’s about typos.

    Do I want my novel published? Sure, but I’m not willing to turn myself inside out chasing something as ephemeral as the mood or preference of some gambler in the publishing industry. If I’m committed enough, I can publish it myself. If I’m rich enough, I can turn it to film.

    And if Agent X was so “dang” smart, why isn’t he being heralded as a living literary genius?

  2. Jamie Says:

    It’s one of the most difficult facets of this whole effort – reconciling the praise while keeping a realistic eye trained on your true worthiness. And then on top of that, realizing that the sum of the equation may have relatively little impact on the success you ever see from your work.

    It’s a roadblock for me, I have to admit. I have my nice fat folder of rejections and I don’t know whether it’s a good idea to keep them in Lady Justice’s left pan until the day I can bend the scale with one heavy acceptance, or if I’m just being morbid.

    Great piece, Mr. Cameron. Just the right measures inspirational, stinging, and funny. My money’s on you.

  3. Robin, Frank Says:

    I’ve been through a number of agents and publishers with all kinds of radically different suggestions, criticisms and accolades, unwilling to represent the work unless. . . . Ultimately, it’s all bs, unless it’s about typos.

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