Dealing with Criticism

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter Twenty-Five

Criticism

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On October 18th, 2005 I had the pleasure of meeting and co-interviewing the author Fredrick Busch, author of Girls, North, The Night Inspector, and many other novels. He was visiting Hamline University and I conducted the interview with author and program dean Mary Rockcastle before a large audience. I was the lucky grad student picked to interview the well-known author, with the entire conversation being recorded for the Water~Stone Review, a literary journal put out each year by Hamline University.

The best part of the night wasn’t the interview itself but the dinner beforehand. I got to drink whiskey and eat steak with Busch, who was every bit the kind, veteran writer I’d been told to expect. I asked Fred what was the biggest piece of advice he had for aspiring authors like myself and he had his answer ready: you needed to do your best to ignore criticism, the good and the bad, because if you believed the good press you received you’d have to believe the bad as well.

This advice seemed simple at the time, but I’ve been unpacking it ever since.

Let’s break it down:

Normal Human Writerly Inclination

Good review → Me happy! Me get happy happy drunk! Me party!

Bad review → Me sad. Me get sad drunk and eat too much cheese.

Vs.

Busch’s Recommended Stance

Good review → Acknowledge review’s existence. Go about day normally.

Bad review → Acknowledge review’s existence. Go about day normally.

This advice seems to tie into the ancient Grecian maxim Meden Agan which translates as “Nothing in Excess” and was carved into the temple of Apollo at Delphi for all to behold. Don’t let events get you too high and don’t let them get you too low. Moderation in everything. Be like the high grass that bends and survives when the great wind blows and knocks down all the stubborn trees.

Or, as it states in Chapter 44 of the Tao Teh Ching:

  As for your name and your body, which is the dearer?

  As for your body and your wealth, which is the more to be prized?

  As for gain and loss, which is the more painful?

  Thus, an excessive love for anything will cost you dear in the end.

  The storing up of too much goods will entail a heavy loss.

  To know when you have enough is to be immune from disgrace.

  To know when to stop is to be preserved from perils.

  Only thus can you endure long.[1]

And let’s not forget the Buddhist claim that all attachment leads to suffering, or the Biblical proverb:

  He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing.[2]

Because who wants a broken neck, right?

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The trouble with this keep-an-even-keel advice is the same trouble as people have with most good advice: it’s a lot harder to heed in practice than in theory. Also, fiction writers need a certain amount of ego, usually a huge ol’ heaping of ego, to assume the shit they come up with in their own imaginations and set down in words will be entertaining enough for a reader to give their time, attention, and money. Believing people will want to read what’s spilled out of your brain is a pretty massive assumption—any writer who has written with the intention of being read by another single person, much less a wide audience of thousands or millions, has stood on the firm bedrock of ego to create their story and push it forth into the world. They’ve needed to believe their great labors were worthwhile. They’ve needed to believe in their Self. Receiving critical acclaim at the end of such a long and harrowing a process as writing and getting a novel published seems like such a natural and desired outcome that when it occurs they can’t help but feel like a sunflower finally turning its face toward the sun after a long winter.

Which, sadly, sets up the invested author for the opposite emotional plunge when negative reviews come out. They did enjoy those good reviews—those reviews were totally accurate! Because they were good!—so, no matter what their friends tell them, there must also be something truthful in the bad reviews. Maybe their characters were underdeveloped, maybe the plot was too predictable, maybe the ending they’d always been so proud of, which had felt so inevitable, really was unsatisfying and confusing.

And now the author has to sit down and write a second book (as long as they haven’t expired from self-harm or gone into marketing) with all these heavy bruises on their heart, all this critical detritus floating in their mind. Their previous novel was said to have “crisp” dialogue so they need to keep that up. The setting was said to have been “vivid” so the new setting better be equally vivid. Their previous plot was said to have been unsatisfying so the next plot better be much more obvious and up front. Their previous tone was considered too heavy so the tone of the new book should be much lighter. By absorbing their reviews too seriously, both good and bad, the much criticized author has fallen into the quicksand trap of the past and writing toward reader expectation instead of writing toward the next story that’s glowing inside of them. They’re writing scared.

Fred Busch, only sixty-four, died unexpectedly of a heart attack roughly four months after we drank whiskey together on that cold autumn night in 2005. He was the author of seventeen published novels, seven published short story collections, and two published non-fiction works. I’m sure he allowed a few reviews to crawl under his skin during his long and prolific career and I can imagine that he realized his advice to me was more of an ideal to strive toward than a truly attainable maxim, a reassuring credo to return to when you’re feeling a little too excitable—when the world feels like it’s unraveling.

[1] Tao The Ching by Lao Tzu. Translated by John C.H. Wu.

[2] Proverbs 29:1, English Standard Version.

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