The year 2009 has been an interesting one, and I use the word "interesting" deliberately and in exactly the evasive manner with which it's often intended...
For me, this was a year of a lot of ups and downs and, while I mostly talked about the ups on this blog (the book! the book!), there were plenty of other things that created challenges. It was a tough and stressful year for so many people I know and care about, and I couldn't help but think this week what a blessing it is when, in the midst of some such challenge, you encounter people who are gentle with you. Who give you the benefit of the doubt. Who treat you with care. Not because they think you're fragile and can't handle it, but because they're wise enough to know they don't know what else might've been going on in your life in the days or hours before you met up with them.
It's been surprising to discover those who naturally demonstrated this gift of perception...and, likewise, those in whom I haven't seen any evidence of it this year. In a lot of ways, I think it comes down to a sense of fairness, whether innate or developed. Trying to be as evenhanded and as objective as possible when dealing with others--in person, on the phone, online. Being critical for a specific purpose, perhaps, but not as a state of being. Not as a way of relating to the world at large.
And so, as 2009 comes crashing to its conclusion at a snowbank near you, I want to discuss a subject that has been very interesting to me throughout the year, and this involves a few facets of criticism, particularly in the writing world.
I wandered into this year expecting literary criticism. Writers write and reviewers comment. ("That According to Jane book had kind of a cool premise, I mean, if you could get over the really odd 'hearing voices' thing and all of those sex scenes.") While I may not have always agreed with someone's analysis of the story, my debut novel is out there, and it's not just mine anymore. A part of it belongs to every reader willing to pick it up, and everyone who does is entitled to comment as they see fit about the story structure, the characters' motivation, the plot conflict, etc. I'm more than okay with that. I find genuine, thoughtful novel critiques fascinating, and I never tire of learning more about writing craft.
Criticisms of me, personally, however--fault-finding not of the story but of the author--created a far less sedate internal reaction. Turns out, published writers are open to criticism from everyone, from everywhere and for just about everything. There is little discretion and often even less tact in some negative reviews. And though we want to send hugs and chocolate to those kind souls who take the time to write something positive and encouraging about our novels, there is a subset of readers who think nothing of linking their individual dislike of a specific story element with a personal slam against the author. ("Since the main character is obviously an immoral tramp--the writer must be, too.")
But, as bizarre and irrational as that reaction seemed to me initially, I grew to expect it on nearly every major review site (Amazon, GoodReads, Library Thing, etc.) and for a large percentage of novels reviewed there. If an author had more than, say, 10-15 reviews, you could almost bet one of them would be by some angry person who felt justified in spouting a grammatically challenged missive like, "Whata bunch of crap. Only a lonly, fat, cat-loving spinster could of written such a unbeleivable 'love' story. Blehh!"
Actually, I noticed a lot of Internet rage in general this year, with Anonymous people posting callous remarks not only in book reviews but on discussion loops, article comments, forum walls. There was a particularly ruthless dig directed at Stephenie Meyer that was so personal, insulting and not remotely writing-related, it succeeded only in making the commenter seem jealous, petty, insecure and extremely bitter about Meyer's tremendous writing success--far from the "smart and witty" observation that I'm sure he/she had intended.
But I've been both intrigued and frustrated to find that the criticisms don't end with anonymous nasties. This year has brought a windfall of other, non-novel-related criticisms--ones that I've learned writers deal with all the time--and they come in forms both verbal and nonverbal. These are "personal" in a different way, and they have to do with the expections other people have of us. There's one criticism in particular I'd heard leveled against debut authors in prior years, and I'd been monitoring myself carefully in hopes of avoiding it. I desperately didn't want to be one of those new authors who, in the gossipy cocoon of RWA and among a mix of writers at a range of publishing stages, could be accused of this serious charge: Now that she's published, she's changed.
But it's not so simple. No one undergoes any sort of trial by fire and is left unchanged by the experience. So, in case anyone is wondering: Yes, I have.
That change, however, is not, as some might suspect, because of the book contract, or because of some newfound love of being in the public eye (LOL! I'm an introvert, people...), or because of my now permanent affiliation with the Published Authors Network. It's because of the very public nature of criticism itself and the braided strands of toxicity that are Envy, Resentment and Insecurity. It's having spent the majority of 2009 trying to come to terms with other people's misperceptions of my job--while still trying to do my job--that made me reevaluate the attitudes and actions of those around me. It also made me rethink my own and, as a result, draw some new boundaries.
Online, of course, separating oneself from antagonism requires different tactics. Sometimes, I think the only effective method is to turn off the computer... With increasing frequency, I'm stunned by things I read there. Like this week, I read a one-star review of a fellow novelist's first book--a novel I loved, by the way, by an author who went on to have seven successful books in her popular series so far (with more to come!) and then to see those novels translated and sold throughout the world. And a random commenter/non-professional reviewer, who claimed to be an aspiring novelist herself, said she'd wished she'd thought of the high-concept story premise first, so she could have done a much better job of writing it than that talentless author. I laughed aloud at the computer screen, cheered for my multi-published friend and, to the anonymous reviewer I said, "Yeah, honey, good luck with that EVER happening."
I was an aspiring writer myself in rather recent history. I also have the pleasure of knowing a great many wonderful aspiring writers who are working hard to hone their craft and break through the cement-like wall of query letters and agent/editor rejections. I know it's hard. But this I've learned for sure in 2009: It doesn't get any easier. As a published author, you get just as many rejections on your story ideas as you did pre-contract, at least as many (usually significantly more) editorial suggestions, very public objections to elements in your book AND you have to promote your novels and your "brand" while writing new material on deadline.
When a writer, whether aspiring or published, turns into an incessant critic of, let's say, a New York Times bestselling author, and that writer-critic publicly--or, even worse, behind that other author's back--insists that this famous author's writing sucks, her publishing contract paid her more than she deserved, her print runs were too high, she looks far less attractive in person than in her author photo and her agent and/or editor must be battling a crack addiction to have ever signed her...well, I wish that writer-critic the opportunity to see every one of her publishing fantasies realized, and that wish isn't out of loving kindness on my part. I'd look forward to watching her try to juggle all of the required aspects of the writing life and the pressure that comes with the perception of success in this industry. Even more, I'd like to see the knowledge dawn on her (sooner rather than later, if at all possible) that every critical and ungracious thing she's ever said about some other writer will be said about her--if she's lucky enough to be noticed by readers--whether those comments are deserved or not, true or untrue, simply because serious and persistent criticism comes with this territory. It's a whole lot easier to stand on the sidelines and be a constant critic than it is to be the central focus of that criticism, especially when it's sung to the tune of "Hey, she's made a lot of money and/or hit a bit list, we should all spew hate at her."
And knowing this--really, really knowing this--even to my far lesser, smaller-contract, non-NYT-bestseller, no-big-list-hitting degree, has, indeed, changed me this year. Though I've never written a nasty online review (who has TIME for that?!), the awareness of all the criticism writers receive has now fully penetrated, and it's made me unwilling to tolerate even clever little quips at a famous writer's expense. Do not trash Nora Roberts, Dan Brown or Stephen King here, please, unless it's in the context of a fair and honest literary analysis of their writing. I only have the tiniest inkling of what they've had to deal with, but I'm in awe of the difficulty of their accomplishment, and no one got to their level without a hell of a lot of work. For the same reason, please don't trash my published writer friends, least of all in my earshot (not that anyone here would!), especially those friends who've scored big contracts or won major awards. They may have faults, but so do we all, and I can tell you, most of them didn't get to where they are by spending their precious writing time blasting their negativity and futile what-ifs at other writers.
In my opinion, if someone thinks he/she can do a better job of writing a story than someone else, that person had best put his/her energy toward actually writing one. Save the sniping comments for those people who, by claiming they could have done a far superior job with another writer's storyline, clearly show just how incapable they are of coming up with an original idea themselves and following through on it. (And I sincerely believe every writer skimming through this essay is more than equal to the task of creating authentic and inspired work... :)
And so, while I'm not one for making grandiose New Year's Resolutions, I am making this vow for the coming year: To take my own advice and to practice it, every day, to the best of my ability. I can't force anyone to follow me in this, nor do I expect it, but, considering what I've seen of the alternative, I know I'll feel cheerier and better able to rise above the unfair criticisms out there if I'm not getting swept into taking part in them myself.
Here's to wishing everybody reading my end-of-the-year ramble a happy, healthy and productive 2010! May the books you read--or write--bring you so much peace and joy in the coming year that there's no room for anything negative. And may you feel as fortunate as I do, to enter a New Year with such a terrific, supportive and fabulous blog community. Thanks to all of you for being one of the really good parts of 2009. Wishing you the fulfillment of every cherished dream...plus a few unexpected but delightful ones.
**P.S. Congrats to Silvia!! You're the winner of my December prize package (DVD of "The Jane Austen Book Club," 2 packets of hot cocoa, Nancy Parra's Dream Man sleep mask, large refrigerator magnet of According to Jane and 1 Ghirardelli dark chocolate and caramel bar :). Please email me -- marilynbrant AT gmail DOT com -- with your snail mail address!
Thanksgiving in the Federal Era by Mary Simonsen
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