07 April 2013

An Understructured Rant on Book Reviews, Critics, And Why You Should Write Anyway

By Jody Aberdeen

"The Artist makes culture, not the Critic." - David Bowie

In the Acknowledgements section of my debut novel Convergence, I ended up including the following passage: "I hope you enjoy it, and if you don't, well, I'll just write something else".  Admittedly, it was a bit of pre-emptive insecurity on my part, but in a way, it's really the only strategy I have to face one of the worst fears that plagues many authors, especially new ones: a negative review.

Any fan of AMC's The Walking Dead knows that the recent finale was, at best, mixed in terms of audience reception.  I got into a small Twitter debate with one of my fellow Toronto Wordslingers about one of the characters (The Governor) being true to himself versus the viewers wanting the kind of "Wham!" ending that they didn't get. And I found myself being a complete fanboy about the whole thing, which is odd, considering that the advice I usually give writers is to just write your real story, screw everyone else's thoughts about where you take it.  In most cases, I at least give lip service to the writer's discretion of taking a story where their instincts and inspiration take them, but this time, I couldn't get past my own dissatisfaction with the ending as a fan and a viewer.

But that's the thing: how much consideration to a reviewer or a fan are we obliged to give when writing our work?  It's definitely not limited to novel or screen writing, but to any artistic expression, in any medium.

(Then again, it's not like the writers behind The Walking Dead are going to care about what I have to say about it per se).

It's not exactly a new debate, but there are always new writers, so the question remains valid: at what point does a desire for artistic integrity stop you from connecting with your audience?  Do you write for the market or write what you have to say, even if it bucks a trend?

How much credence do we give to people who make it a living to criticize content versus creating it themselves?  I think by the way I phrased the last one, you can tell where I stand on the question.

Opinions are cheap, really, especially when it comes to the arts.  There's little else that bugs me quite like a so-called patron of the arts who himself does not create the content, has not ever been bit by a creative impulse in her life, but who nonetheless can say, with conviction and a measure of credibility, that this book stinks.

If it was just a matter of some random person playing armchair quarterback with an author's labour of love, then it would end at mere irritation, but because of the sheer plethora of books available in 2013 and the ever shuttering windows of time available for people to read them, critics have never had more power to make or break the career of any storyteller, and they are necessary.

That being said, the math just seems really unfair at times.  Maybe it's the newbie in me, but it just plain sucks that I could spend countless years and ungodly amounts of coffee working on a manuscript just to have one bad review in a major paper or blog site destroy my book's success before it starts.  This is especially true when the critiques are almost purely academic: Stephen King notes in On Writing that one critic panned The Green Mile because his lead character and martyr, John Coffey, has the same initials as another famous figure who died for the sins of ordinary people.  "Really, guys?" is how King puts his own reaction to that particular literary critique.

I suppose it's that very same hipsterish impulse that I'm sensitive to, the idea that a new piece of work is crap if seems too much like a comparable mainstream story, or if it's too "derivative", a critique on which I call "bullshit" quite frequently because, to paraphrase Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk, we're all basically the aggregation of the sum total of ideas and experiences we've consumed in our lives. Great storytelling often involves using those familiar patterns and archetypes that have been done thousands of times before. Originality can only take you so far, but it's a familiar repost of the self-satisfied critic.

I'll end my understructured rant by saying this: every storyteller has the opportunity to connect with the audience.  Audience connection is the only real external concern that an author should have, but the real shiny part about it is that the works with the greatest resonance with people tend to happen when the author is being real with herself and the story she wants to tell.

Greatest recent example I can think of:  Matthew Quick's debut novel, The Silver Linings Playbook.  No, I'm not about to review the book for you in the midst of my anti-reviewer rant (my hypocrisy only goes so far), but I'll say this much: Quick told a story from a position of such authenticity that you can almost smell the barbecue at the Eagles tailgate parties he portrays, and did so in a voice and style that resonated enough with enough people to generate an Oscar-winning screenplay adaptation.  And the film and the book had enough people who nonetheless didn't feel too highly about it, but look how much that mattered in the long run.

Regardless of whether you end up with a movie deal or continue to write in obscurity, the point is this: tell your story, tell it well, and tell it with reckless abandon and deliberate blindness to the eyes and voices outside your creative process.  Create something that makes you feel good, enjoy the feeling of accomplishment when it's done.

And hey, if people don't like it, do what you were going to do anyway, and write something else.

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