Last year I published my debut collection of poetry, Love Crimes.
I have been writing poetry since I was fourteen years old and the collection marked my first real attempt at professional literary output. Love Crimes is an assembly of all the best romantic poetry I had written up to that point, and I intend to follow it with a collection made up of my nature poetry.
After I had painstakingly self-published the collection, burning through two self-publishing companies in the process, I took what I thought was the next logical step: having the book reviewed. It took me almost a year to get to the point where I had the money to have this done. My 9–5 is lucrative enough to keep myself alive without struggling, but I don’t often have spare money for my hobbies.
Creative people are cursed with a type of boundless optimism that makes them carry on in the face of rejection, and keep creating despite all reasonable and logical notions that their time and energy might be better spent elsewhere. It was with this boundless optimism that I submitted Love Crimes to several review sites including Kirkus.
Even though I had braced myself for the possibility that I would not receive a favourable review, most reviews that claim to be objective are balanced, exploring the good and the bad. On receiving the review, I was startled and upset to realise that it was not only an almost entirely negative review, but it was one of the worst reviews I’ve ever read on the Kirkus site.
So what do you do when you read one of the worst reviews of a poetry collection — and it belongs to you? Here are the main things I told myself to cope:
1. People experience and interpret art through an infinite number of lenses. Your writing can not look good through each and every lens.
The first thing that came as a surprise to me is how different my narrative voice comes across than how it was intended to come across. What I thought were my own tender, whispered words of love and sensuality were interpreted as “screaming loudly” and an “aggressive cry for narrative attention”. Though it has come as a great shock that my work was interpreted this way, as with all art, all interpretations are valid in some sense. It never ceases to amaze me how the same work can be interpreted so differently by other people.
It’s not just a case of people liking different stuff. Some art is relevant to some and irrelevant to others on an emotional level. After this review, I suspect this collection is only relevant to a narrower band of readers than I had initially thought it would be e.g. people who share emotional experiences with me.
On that note, however…
2. Other artists produce similar work and people love it.
One point made by the critic in this review is: “…readers with no affinity for confessional poetry will feel as though the speaker is trying to take them into the specificities of a state of mind that they have no investment in…”
This is a surprisingly subjective opinion to express in a review. I don’t think this is at all valid for all readers. Not only do many readers have an affinity for confessional poetry, you don’t need to be personally invested in an artist or even know them to empathise with them or appreciate their art.
For example, you don’t have to have cheated on your girlfriend and knocked up your girl on the side to appreciate Usher’s Confessions. Despite having never got my girlfriend pregnant (lacking the necessary genitals, or inclination, to do such a thing) I can appreciate the pathos, pain, and the predicament explored in Usher’s music. I do not even like rap music all that much, but I love Usher’s Confessions.
Confessional art is common and popular.
3. a) There are plenty of bad reviews of the writing I like and good reviews of the writing I hate.
I am not alone in feeling like my artistic tastes are out of step with critics. My least favourite book of last year possesses a Kirkus star, and my favourite does not. I’m not sure why I was so certain my own work would suit the tastes of critics when the work I have an affinity with does not.
3.b) All lot of classic art was critically slammed before it became classic art.
After I first read the review of my work, I must confess that I spent a lot of time Googling successful authors who were derided by critics before they made it big. Not only was I surprised at how many classic novels were slammed, but I was shocked by the visceral dislike they provoked.
It is always wise to remember that the gatekeepers of the literary industry: critics, agents, and publishers, are not omnipotent.
4. The same art may have been received or described differently had it been written by someone else.
Whilst I’m not deluded enough to think that the reviewer would have lauded my collection more highly if I were a man… I do believe that had I been a male writer or used a male pseudonym, my poetry might not have been described as “screaming loudly” or as an “aggressive cry for narrative attention”, in the same way men are never called “bossy”.
5. It’s better to create writing that people either strongly love or strongly hate than writing no one feels anything strongly about — or worse — no writing at all.
Creating art is the hardest thing to do. You’re trying to hit a target no one can see. You are the vanguard of your own work. Write for yourself and satisfy yourself with the process of creating the work you want to create. Critics be damned! Even if the critics are right and your work really is shit, there’s no shame in failing at something this hard to do.
Once I abandoned the milquetoast stuff I wrote to please other people I became much more successful as a writer (more able to complete long and short works of writing to a publishable standard). My own lack of enthusiasm for the work I was creating meant I lost my own momentum. Once I focussed on creating the work I utterly loved the words flowed through my keyboard so much easier, though I knew in making this choice I would be creating work that was more likely to split an audience.
The process is painful, but artistic output is valuable and we all know that it’s a damn sight more satisfactory than our 9–5s. It’s what makes us human and it’s what distinguishes ‘living’ from merely ‘existing’.
I hope none of you ever lose the boundless optimism that drives people like us to make art.
Be brave, fellow writers! Go forth and create.