How do you react when someone criticizes your book?

Saul Bellow knew exactly what to tell book critics. Keep reading and you'll find out.
Saul Bellow knew exactly what to tell book critics. Keep reading and you’ll find out.

EVERY WRITER, sooner or later, suffers from the same malady.

It’s common.

It’s hearbreaking.

It’s emotional.

It’s not terminal.

Writers as a rule are sorely afflicted with self-doubt.

They write from the heart.

They pour out their soul.

Their words were handpicked.

Criticize their works and you might as well be making fun of their children.

Writers hold it against you.

They say they don’t.

But they do.

The process was best described by that great Southern writer Eudora Welty. She said that when she met with her editor and publisher and placed her manuscript in their hands, it was like walking into a room stark naked and turning slowly around,

There it is.

There’s the story full packed and intact, possessing all of its flaws and warts?

Don’t like it?

Don’t look for anything else.

It isn’t written yet.

And after a while, authors – one and all – begin to wonder if writing another book is really worth the effort.

I know.

I’m one of them.

We sulk.

We watch daylight become as dark as our souls.

Then another story begins to emerge, and we can’t wait to throw it on paper.

Maybe this is the one, we say.

Let’s give it a chance.

Writers – since the written word was first invented – have been blindsided with the pain and humiliation of rejection.

The editor of the San Francisco Examiner told Rudyard Kipling, “I’m sorry, sir, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”

Don’t tell that to Gunga Din.

Stephen King, early in his career, had a book turned down, the publisher said, because “we are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.”

Maybe not.

But King sold a few.

William Golding’s classic, Lord of the Flies, was rejected by twenty publishers, with one calling his book “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy, which was rubbish and dull.”

He didn’t like it.

But our English teachers sure do.

When Joseph Heller finally got around to submitting his masterpiece, Catch 22, a publisher read it and wrote: “I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say … Apparently the author intends to be funny – possibly even satire – but it is really not funny on any intellectual level.”

Heller laughed on his way to the bank.

The publisher heard laughter, too.

The literary world was laughing at him.

As a writer, do you think you’ve had a bad day?

How about Tony Hillerman who wrote mystery novels about the Navajo Tribal Police.

He built his stories around the customs and legends, prejudice and hardships found on reservations and in Navajo society.

So what did the publisher tell him?

“Get rid of all that Indians stuff,” he said.

Hillerman didn’t.

Vladimir Nabakov thought his novel Lolita would be breaking new ground.

It did.

One publisher just didn’t like the way the ground had been broken.

He wrote Navakov that the novel “was overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian … the whole thing is an unsure cross between hideous reality and improbable fantasy. It often becomes a wild neurotic daydream … I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.”

The stone wasn’t big enough to hold down Lolita.

Men weren’t either.

When Irving Stone wrote Lust for Life about Vincent Van Gogh, one of sixteen rejection letters sadly called the book “a long dull novel about an artist.”

Twenty-five million people disagreed.

They each bought a copy.

The traditionalists in New York’s haven for literary wonders certainly had no idea what, if anything, was running through Jack Kerouac’s mind when he sat down and scribbled the words for On The Road.

One publisher said of Kerouac, “His frenetic and scrambled prose perfectly expresses the feverish travels of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don’t think so.

America’s readers didn’t think it was enough either.

They wanted more of that scrambled prose.

And God help the publisher who read William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, threw up his hands, and said in anguish: “Good God, I can’t publish this!”

So how should writers react when criticisms and rejections plant seeds of doubt about their work?

Saul Bellow had the best idea for dealing with a bearer of bad news. “I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing,” he said. “They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, ‘To hell with you.”

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    I have two emotions when someone criticizes one of my books. First, it’s hurt. Then it’s anger. And finally I sit down and write another, hoping it’s better this time.

  • Caleb,
    And the double whammy today is that many submissions are met by nothing but silence, leaving the author to make up his own reason for rejection.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      And that’s the rejection that angers us the most. I’m with Saul Bellow.

  • “Criticize their works and you might as well be making fun of their children.” Criticize our works and you ARE making fun of our children.

    The problem with this wonderful post: every one of the people you quote or refer to is an outlier. Part of the actual elites who CAN write. The group we all hope to join. The success stories.

    The other success path, writing well enough, getting incrementally better, building a fan base a book and a reader at a time – well, that sounds like WORK.

    The good thing: we DO the work, while hoping we hit that lottery.

    I think harsh SELF-criticism is the key to the self-awareness that leads to knowing and understanding what we, specifically, need to work on to get to the next level.

    I read somewhere (wish I could remember where, to give credit) that there is a spread of abilities in writers: on the lower end, people who can’t write, and never will really be able to learn how (but think they can). Those we tiptoe away from.

    At the top of the range, those people who don’t need much help beyond time and practice – they are born writers, geniuses (genii?), and at a level to which most people can’t even aspire.

    But in the middle are the vast majority of writers, those whose craft is imperfect – but can be continuously perfected IF they make the effort. Those people can move from the bottom of the range to the very edge of the top, right under the genius level – by their own efforts (maybe with some pointing out by teachers, books, and critics).

    That is the level I aspire to. ‘Genius’ is not something I can actually achieve, and it can be very discouraging to compare myself to; but increasing craft? learning how? moving up? Those are within my grasp.

  • Darlene Jones

    My writing partner and I once had the exact same rejection letter from an agent we had pitched to – using cut and paste (judging by the different fonts in the email) for two different genres and writing styles. Doesn’t give the agent much credence, eh?

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Darlene, I fear that agents these days face the same rejections that they send to writers. They can no longer find publishers who are looking for books, and publishers are firing editors so there’s no one to make literary decisions except accountants who care more about the bottom line than literary excellence. That’s not me talking. I’m quoting a well-respected agent in New York who has formed his own eBook publishing company to help his authors who are embroiled in the abyss that was once a thriving industry.

  • JL Greger

    I agree with Caleb – the hardest rejections are when the reader or editor doesn’t respond at all. then I’m not sure I’ve even learned anything. Usually I do learn something from negative reviews once I calm down.
    JL Greger

    • Caleb Pirtle

      If a negative review is a legitimate critique, I do learn something. But often the one star reviews are written by people who just want to tear some book down because they have the right to do it.

  • I tend to forget that self-doubt is not a solo game. It’s good to read articles like this, to know that whatever you are feeling or going through, many before you, and many after you, will experience the same mental obstacles. It’s not that I find joy in others’ suffering, but knowing that what I feel, how I view my work and abilities, that these *feelings* aren’t so unique and that it is okay, I just need to keep writing.

    Awesome post, thanks.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Woelf: We get knocked down and get up again. It’s never easy, but it’s what we do. Writing is a game that has no clock and no time limit. We keep slugging away and always believe that tomorrow is the days that makes a difference.

  • Yes, that about sums it up: “To hell with you”

    The worst thing a writer can hear isn’t “This book is bad and won’t sell. Change everything. No, wait: Don’t bother. You suck at writing.” The worst thing he or she can hear is “Oh, that’s nice. This is just like Nicholas Sparks/Jodi Picoult/Stephen King (whomever), but without the rough edges! This should sell like hotcakes in that market!”

    That’s the death-knell.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      We weather the critics, smile, and our writing goes one. If nothing else, the criticisms drive us to write better next time.

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