Recognizing the Value of Criticism
In his article written for online news and entertainment website Salon, Somerville writes about a negative review he received from the New York Times. “Thank You for Killing my Novel” reveals that not only did Somerville’s fourth book, This Bright River, get an unfavorable review, the reviewer also mixed up Somerville’s characters in a crucial scene. The misreading, Somerville explains, changes how the reader experiences the events of the novel.
After the review appeared, Somerville entered into a long chain of e-mail correspondence with a New York Times editor, and Somerville wrote to him as one of his fictional main characters. Somerville had set up an e-mail address for the fictional character, and the editor had chosen to e-mail that character and ask what had actually happened in the scene. Both Somerville and his main character debated for some time with the editor, and the editor worked with him to issue a retraction.
As a writer myself, I sympathize with much of the pain Somerville describes as his wife reads the review to him. Having this criticism displayed to such a wide audience takes courage, and is something to admire. And on top of that, Somerville chooses to value the criticism, rather than hide from it:
This Bright River is my fourth book, but it’s been the same for each one, and they all have their distinct crucibles, and I’m sure it’ll be the same if I ever make it to 20: I read the reviews of my books and I am greatly affected by the reviews of my books. I can’t help it. They matter both artistically and commercially. They scare me and I love them. How other people react is a part of storytelling.”
Perhaps a better way of looking at critiques is to recognize them as a form of engagement. We are engaging an audience with our work, regardless of what that work may be or whoever that audience may be. If we hear nothing back, if we fail to engage the good critics and the bad, how do we know if our work has made any real impact?
Instead of hating the reviewer and holding a grudge for life, Somerville accepts her interpretation.
It remains mind-blowing to me that it happened, but I doubt the core of her conclusions would have been all that different without the mistake. The goddamned thing rambles, I know! It’s big and unruly and everywhere! But that’s why I love it! It had to be that way! But some people won’t love it! And hopefully some will!”
Somerville’s attitude is one we can all learn from. What matters is not how many good reviews you earn, but that you love and are proud of you work. You may not reach everyone, but if you are honest and true to yourself, you will reach someone.
You can read the rest of Patrick Somerville’s article here.