Part of being a so-called pessimist is assessing personal rationalization—which is a fancy way of making sure your shit-detector is on. It is necessary, I believe, to constantly ask, “Is this really true, or do I just believe it’s true because I desperately want it to be true—because if it isn’t true, the consequences would be unthinkably dire?” It’s about as much fun to do this as you’d imagine, but it has certain advantages, one of the biggest being that no one can ever be harder on me than I am. That, oddly enough, is one key goal of this way of thinking: being so tough on yourself that other people’s slings and arrows feel like soap bubbles on the skin of your psyche.
That is the goal. I am not always successful at achieving this goal.
My new novel is barely a month old and it has already received its first bad review. Granted, this was not an article in The New York Times but rather a brief, semi-anonymous post on GoodReads. GoodReads might once have been a fun place for book lovers to explore all things bookish, but it has pretty much devolved into yet another social media site where the semi-anonymous can exercise their snark muscles. And granted, the “review” didn’t say anything specific but simply asserted strident personal opinion as though that matters more than anything. Yeah, all that granted, but it still hurts to have the word “craptastic” applied to me for any reason, much less to describe my book, my baby, my beloved creation.
My writer friends have told me, very reasonably and logically, to ignore the review. They pointed out it was written by someone whose taste in literature, as evidenced by her GoodReads bookshelves, could not really be described using the words “taste” or “literature.” Besides, they reminded me, good books get dissed, always. You can’t please all of the people all of the time—why would you even want to?—and there are one-star reviews of every great piece of literature in existence. If anything, it’s a sign that you took risks with your writing—which is what good writers do.
I did take a risk, of sorts. One of the better pieces of writing advice I’ve heard is that you should write the kind of book you want to read. And personally, I want to read books that are compelling and memorable but a little smaller and quieter than most of what’s out there. There are a number of popular mystery series I enjoyed for a while and then dropped because their over-the-topness got too ridiculous for me. One heroine in particular used to have to escape from near-death situations at least six times in every novel. And we’re talking really horrible near-deaths, burning and drowning and burial alive, not just little ol’ gunshot wounds. After a while, believe it or not, that gets old.
For my own mystery series, I wanted someone with a small life, not a big one. She would be fairly ordinary, except for one small thing, and that small thing would be more peculiar than powerful or magical. I knew there would be readers who wouldn’t like this; they’d want their entertainment to be larger than life. I get that; it’s exciting. Thing is, life itself is huge; why overlook that fact for overly inflated drama? Add to that the fact that life is made up of more little moments than big ones, so if you only write about the big stuff, you’re missing most of what goes on in the world.
All that seemed to make perfect sense to me, so I wrote a book. The book was published a month ago, a few people have read it, and at least one person hated it enough to call it “craptastic.” But the part of the review that hurt worse than that jibe (which stings the way any slangy insult does, mainly because it’s so meaningless you can’t refute it) made me question everything I’d wanted for this book. The reviewer’s chief gripe, you see, was that she found the book boring—the exact word she used was lifeless. I thought I was writing about life. Someone clearly disagreed.
One of the big bonuses of getting older is being more able to let things roll off you. Things that would have wounded me twenty years ago get a shrug and a grin today. A group of teenage girls could openly mock my hair, clothes, and figure, and I’d feel nothing but pity for them because holy shit you could not pay me to be their age again. And yet of course it is still hard to face criticism, because it makes me ask the hardest question: what if I’m really not that good? In something as subjective and unquantifiable as writing, it isn’t easy to know whether your “talent” isn’t really just the talent to live in denial. What if I’ve lived my whole life in pursuit of a goal that was doomed from the start? We hear all those pithy aphorisms about how you never know until you try, but they tend to implicitly assume eventual success. What if we don’t succeed, ever? Can we really say it was worth it even though we failed? If all this time I imagined I was good at writing—really good, good enough that people would pay to read my stuff—and the truth is I’m really only pretty good, good enough for my friends to enjoy but not to reach a wider swath of humanity—can I really feel like I haven’t wasted my life?
Well, at least there’s always running, which in certain key aspects is not the least bit subjective. I either hit my goal for the marathon this Saturday or I don’t, and if I don’t, all the rationalization in the world won’t change the fact that I wasn’t fast enough … though it could have been the weather … or I might simply have been having a bad day … and who’s to say I couldn’t still reach that goal another day?
Excuse me; I think my shit-detector is on the fritz.