I really wish I wouldn’t have deleted the email I received this morning, as I think this post would be so much more amusing for you with the exact quotes contained therein. I will do my best to recreate it for you nonetheless, even in the absence of the direct digital evidence. First, some context.
As many of you know, I recently published my first book, Folds in the Map: Stories of Life’s Unlikely Intersections. Having taken almost seven years to write, it was with no small amount of relief that I finally held my author’s copy in my hands last month and with no small amount of trepidation that I earnestly began submitting it for reviews a couple of weeks ago. As independent authors, this is what we spend an inordinate amount of our time doing – trying to convince critics to read and critique our work with the hope that it will grow beyond our own small circles of friends and supporters. In particular, a bit of advice I heard from several other indie authors was to submit my book to reviewers on Amazon’s Top Customer Reviewers list. After sifting through the profiles of the top 1,000 or so of these, I judiciously selected around 30 who seemed to be the best fits for my topic areas and writing style. I almost immediately received replies from a number of them, most very politely indicating they were swamped with requests and unable to provide a review, but a couple who generously agreed. One of them has now written what I would consider a very fair and detailed review and the other is still in the process of reading. Not a bad start at all.
Then there was the aforementioned email I received this morning. It was a response from a reviewer – let’s just call her Barb to protect her from any future embarrassment – who apparently has quite the pedigree at a large and prestigious university out west. As I said, I really wish I hadn’t deleted the email (angrily, I might add) so I could provide you with Barb’s actual words, but here is a brief three-part synopsis of her message:
- Nothing in your email made me want to review your book. I went to Amazon and read the sample chapter and that didn’t make me want to read your book either. I also read the reviews on Amazon and they also didn’t make me want to read your book. In addition, I don’t think the other Top Customer Reviewer who reviewed your book actually liked your book. She was just trying to be nice. Everyone who has reviewed your book positively must be your friends or family members. In conclusion, I don’t want to read your book.
- I am 67 years old and have traveled the world having all kinds of worldly experiences. I don’t want to read about your worldly experiences. In fact, nobody wants to read about your worldly experiences. Maybe if I was your aunt or grandmother I would care about your worldly experiences but I’m not so I don’t. Also, I noticed that you write about your anxiety and manic-depressive tendencies. You should really get some clinical help for these things rather than writing about them. No one wants to hear about these things. You shouldn’t be a writer. If you ever were going to be a real writer, maybe you should learn how to write fiction.
- P.S. Here’s a list of psychiatric resources that may be of interest to you.
I swear to you, dear readers, I am not making this up. This is pretty darn close to what she actually wrote to me. Number 3 is definitely my favorite. They seemed like pretty good resources! All kidding aside though, it’s not that I have super thin skin or hold some naïve notion that everyone will love the things I write. I think David Mitchell probably said it best in Black Swan Green when he wrote:
“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, ‘When you’re ready’.”
As independent writers, artists, and musicians we all have to be prepared to deal with criticism, solicited or not. It’s the risk we take when we choose to step beyond the warm, supportive bubbles of our adoring friends and family members and put our work out into the broader world. For us, visibility and vulnerability are inextricably linked. The forces that compel us to create and share our work are the same ones that set us up for public scrutiny. Some would argue that we get exactly what we ask for.
So it’s not the fact that my friend Barb doesn’t want to review my book that bothers me. Quite frankly, I couldn’t care less at this point if she condescended to bestow her vast, worldly wisdom upon me by means of critiquing my humble words. And it isn’t even the mind-boggling, stratospheric level of arrogance required to write such an email that has my blood boiling. It’s the not-so-subtle insinuation that only certain people have the right to make art; that art belongs to some exclusive, privileged class of intellectuals and academicians and not to all of us.
In other words, it’s not that she questioned the content of the book. It’s that she questioned my right to write it in the first place.
Barb, I want to thank you, because I’ve been looking for the words for this next part for quite some time.
I often get asked in interviews if I have any advice for young writers and I normally answer with my usual spiel about finding their own unique voices and not following whatever happens to be popular in the moment. I mean, seriously, the world can only take so many teen vampire novels. But now I think I’ve really got something to say, and it’s all thanks to you, Barb.
To all of you independent writers, musicians, and artists out there. To all of you who put paint to canvas, ink on the pages, and notes in our ears. To all of you who may never make a living doing what you love but will keep doing it anyway. To all of you who stay up all night filling up Moleskines or grinding out club gigs for drinks or saving your shitty tips for one more new brush or one more used lens. To all of you who have inspired and saved me more times than I could ever count. To all of you reading this right now. I want you all to remember something and remember it well:
Whether your art is born of rebellion or heartbreak, whether you’re trying to move the masses or just trying to save your own soul, whether you only have three chords or three words or three colors that you trust and know to be true… remember that art belongs to everyone and you get to make it however the hell you want. Put your heart out there for the world to see and take your lumps along the way. Absorb or deflect the inevitable barbs and criticism with grace and kindness. Keep submitting those review requests and accept the honest feedback you receive.
But never, ever let anyone tell you that you don’t have the right to be an artist.