Monday, April 14, 2008

Praise, Criticism, and the problem of Other People

Like any writer, I have a complicated relationship to my readers. And I don't mean "published writer" or "professional writer." I'm talking about anyone who writes. If all you do is scribble in your diary, you've got an audience: the future version of yourself who will no longer feel quite the same as the one who's writing. And that future you may sneer at the you of the present, just as the you of the present is sneering at the you of the past. Or, perhaps, envying the you of the past.

But it's true, the more people you hope or expect to read your work, the more complicated things become. Personally, I want everybody to read my work. The complications come from the further desire for them to like it. Or, should I say, the need for them to like it. Or at least respect it.

It's common for a writer to say that, when she's writing, she isn't thinking about her audience--she's just deeply engaged in the act of writing. I say this all the time, in fact, and it isn't a lie. Anyone who is passionately engaged in some creative endeavor is familiar with that amazing feeling--total absorption in an imagined world. It's part of the reason people keep making stuff even when their public fortunes turn south. A good session of writing, or painting, or whatever, is like a kind of hyper-alive dream state.

But unless you are an amazingly self-contained person, this state is nestled firmly under the big tent of others' regard. Your work is about other people, and it is ostensibly directed at other people. Yes, you write for yourself--but most of us desperately need to see ourselves reflected back to us in the mirror of The Public. Even if the public is just your husband or wife, or pen pal. And if other people are really important to you, and to the way you define yourself, you imagine the glowing reviews, or the gratitude of your tearful readers, or the awards banquet or whatever.

For some of us, this is a real motivating force. The desire for approval, for validation. For others, it's a distraction, a cause for terror. Some of us get one little whiff of others' regard, negative or positive, and run like hell from it, never to publish again. Some of us claim loudly to disdain it, and are lying. Some of us admit loudly that it does indeed motivate us, in an effort to preclude our having to admit it to ourselves, for real. There are probably some of us, minor superheroes, who really, truly don't give a crap. I really, really, really want to be one of those people.

Well--maybe not. Maybe this desire keeps me honest. Maybe the need for attention--any kind of attention--is the one thing that actually allows us to accept constructive criticism. And maybe our awareness of this need gives us an even more useful skill--doubting others' praise. Praise, of course, is what we really want when we ask for constructive criticism. But receiving it is rarely as satisfying as we hope. Most normal people have a little voice in the back of their heads, saying, "If she likes your book, she must be an idiot. Or a liar." I suspect that voice spends its time sparring with the voice that says, "He doesn't like your book? What a sad, sad little man!"

My writing is for me, but it is about you. Or maybe it's about me, and for you. In any event, I hope you like it. And if you do, you're a liar. And if you don't, you're an idiot.

11 comments:

Laura @ Hungry and Frozen said...

I found myself nodding vigorously in agreement the whole way through that. Extremely well put!

jrlennon said...

Thank you!

bigscarygiraffe said...

I'm a big fat liar then, and lovin' it.

Gloria, Writer Reading said...

That last little paragraph should be framed. You know, stitched on a cloth like those Home Sweet Home embroideries and hung in every writer's house.

jrlennon said...

Or perhaps a tee shirt?

Ray said...

Wallace Stevens, in "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words," an essay. said this of the poet:

He will, nevertheless, still be addressing himself to an elite, for all poets address themselves to someone and it is of the essence of that instinct, and it seems to amount to an instinct, that it should be an elite, not to a drab but to a woman with the hair of a pythoness, not to a chamber of commerce but to a gallery of one's own, if there are enough of one's own to fill a gallery."

I taught writing for many years, always trying to get people to understand how much easier it was to commit words to paper if one had a clear idea of the person (or, if one is lucky, persons) who might someday read those words. I believe I was right in that emphasis, and that "creative" or "literary" writers might profit from paying close attention to their readers, even if they have "the hair of a pythoness," whatever that means.

Ray

AC said...

Between this post and the one last week about autobiographical material, you've certainly explained for me why I've never become a writer. Thanks for the insight. Seriously.

Dan H. said...

Miles Davis played with his back to the audience
But he still played for an audience

rmellis said...

ac: I'd love to hear more on that. Are these issues that overwhelming? In practice, they're not.

jrlennon said...

I have basically been writing my fiction, pretty explicitly, "to" Rhian and Ed for many years.

Warren Adler said...

Excellent article.

http://warrenadler.blogspot.com/