Listening to (and Learning From) Criticism
Criticism can never be a science: it is, in the first place, much too personal, and in the second, it is concerned with values that science ignores. The touchstone is emotion, not reason. We judge a work of art by its effect on our sincere and vital emotion, and nothing else.
— D.H. Lawrence
A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down.
— Edna St. Vincent Millay
I concluded last week’s blog by saying I trusted that readers new to HIGH CRIMES (being rereleased in paperback on March 1) would let me know whether the story still holds up, 13 years after its original publication. Until I wrote that sentence, it hadn’t really occurred to me: people will write. While I hope most of that feedback will be positive, some readers will need to let me know about parts of the book that didn’t work for them.
I read these emails, just as I read my reviews. Even if a reader is writing to criticize, the criticism means that the book made an impact, that the reader cared enough to want the story or the characters to go a certain way, and be disappointed if they didn’t. In this day and age, when readers are busy and distracted and have so many demands on their time, I’m honored when readers take the time to write to me — even if they’re writing with bad news.
I used to assume that any writer who claimed not to read reviews was lying. Over the years I’ve met a handful of authors whose claims I believe, but I would never be able to follow their example. I’m not that strong; I want to know what people think. I pay attention to feedback. While all feedback isn’t equally valuable, I’ve learned to recognize the criticisms that ring true, and appreciate feedback that shows me ways to improve my writing.
Getting feedback from HIGH CRIMES is going to be a challenge, because I believe — I hope — I’ve learned a lot since I wrote that book, in the late 1990s. While I’m proud of HIGH CRIMES, and I’m grateful for its positive reviews, I believe I’m a better writer now than I was 13 years ago. Some part of that is due to the feedback HIGH CRIMES received when it was first published.
I discuss the art of processing feedback at greater length here, but today I’ll highlight one piece of advice I’ve found especially useful: pay attention to comments you get from more than one reader. The rule of three applies: if three readers ask me something about a character or a plot point, I need to fix something.
What’s frustrating, of course, is that once the book is on the shelf, my ability to fix anything is limited. But I’ll note the feedback and remember it for next time. No work ever reaches a state of perfection, but at least I can try for new flaws with every book.