I have a friend who is a talented musician who makes a living by writing and playing. He’s generally one of the sunniest most open-hearted people I know. Yet a month or so ago he posted a link to an article detailing how Mumford & Sons represent just about everything that is wrong with music today and probably with all of America and maybe the world. A couple of weeks ago, Boston.com posted a slideshow “Much-Better, Local Alternatives to Mumford & Sons.” It begins: “Few things make me want to resort to violence more than turning on the radio and hearing Marcus Mumford’s aggressive wail.”
Why all the Mumford & Sons hate? When I turn on the radio and hear the twanging banjos and plaintive voices, I turn it up and sing along. My family does a mean car-version of “I Will Wait.” It seems petty to me to tear down a band that, while they may not be the best band ever, do something and do it well and, in so doing, bring joy to a lot of listeners. Is it jealousy? Do these musicians simply know more than I do and thus are in a better place to critique the band? Probably. That still doesn’t change my opinion of the band. Love them. Unabashedly.
And yet. Yet. I can’t help but wonder about these seemingly-sensitive guys reading this type of critique over and over again. Or, bringing it to our world, what about Stephenie Meyer or Suzanne Collins or even, my personal bugaboo, James Patterson. Do they hear it? Do they care? Ha, ha, it’s easy to think, they are crying all the way to the bank.
But I have read my own negative reviews. And I have read the good ones. Both can be paralyzing. When The Water Castle first came out, it got the type of reception I had only ever dared to think to dream about -- a starred review in Kirkus, a New York Times review. At the time I was working on edits for my next novel, which is quite different from The Water Castle. Whereas The Water Castle is tightly plotted, as many of the reviews noted, The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill is far more linear and character driven. I worried that this new book was not as good, not as remarkable. It took effort and self-discipline for me to see again the strengths of my new book and to believe in it once more.
With the buzz, The Water Castle gained more attention by bloggers and others, some of whom questioned why it was receiving the buzz in the first place and explained in detail why they thought it was undeserving. I like to think I am tough, but reading these is the torture of a thousand cuts. As Sarah Aronson put it in a recent blog post on on unlikable characters:
I’m still a writer who, like everyone else, would really like to be liked.
She goes on:
Today, many of us are preoccupied with our images and what others say about our work. We know that in today’s world—Janine’s world—we have access to what our readers think of our creative decisions. Here is the big problem: if we let it infect us too much, it will hurt our work.
When I read those words, it was like someone speaking my heart. Infection. That’s exactly what it feels like. That little voice that is always there telling you you are a sham, that you have everyone fooled, those reviews give it a megaphone.
So here are my No’s for November. First, no tearing down other writers or their work. While I understand that bloggers, reviewers, and other gatekeepers have a vital role to fulfill, that is not my role. It has never been my habit to do so publicly, but I've said my share of derisive comments to friends and colleagues. Second, no reading the online discussions of my work. In this interconnected world, it can be difficult to avoid finding them. But I will do my best. And when I do read reviews -- good or bad -- I will try to keep the infection at bay. Because I have more work to do.