Criticism – the getting and the giving

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Recently, I was in conversation with a friend of mine – also a writer. He said he’d got his first one-star review on Amazon. We then discussed the giving and getting of criticism, that bitter pill that goes down like a block of lead. Anyway, the conversation got me thinking … what if someone was to ruthlessly pan my work in a public forum? How would I take it? Here’s my answer:

Late in life, Beethoven began to write the most extraordinary and experimental music of his career. At one point, he handed a passage from the Opus 59 Quartets to his lead violinist. The man started playing it and then stopped halfway through. “Herr van Beethoven,” he said, “this isn’t music.” Beethoven, an irascible genius, would normally have flown into a rage at the impertinence, but he didn’t. He simply replied, “Oh, this isn’t for you. It’s for a later age.”

And there, in a nutshell, is my response to criticism. “It isn’t for you.”

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Whenever I find myself reading something I don’t like – a book, an article, a story, a poem – I try not to claim so-and-so can’t write or his work is rubbish. Instead, I’ll say, “It isn’t for me.” And I simply won’t review it. There’s plenty of negativity out there already and life is hard enough for most writers without me lobbing a bomb over the fence.

If someone pans my own work – and, yes, I have received a one-star rating (I just checked on Goodreads!) – that’s my response: “It isn’t for you. You aren’t my target audience. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the fruits of my labor, but that’s the thing about literature or music or art – people have different tastes.”

And what about malicious attacks on your work? Go to Amazon or Goodreads or pretty much any online forum and there among the well-considered reviews and comments, you can always find someone with nothing but nastiness. Personal sniping. Insults. Bile dressed as wit. If a reviewer were to target me, I think I’d try to go with Michelle Obama’s dictum: “If they aim low, we aim high.” You can only control your own behavior.

Maybe the best solution is simply not to read your reviews. After all, it’s the work that counts. I don’t know about you, but I’m writing for a later age. Or so I tell myself.

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