An esteemed British writer, one whose novels have been published for half a century, advised me recently not to read my own book reviews – unless they’re written by someone whose opinion you respect.
Good reviews will make you vain, they told me, and the bad ones will crush you. Since then, I’ve tried to follow that advice… but as every new-ish writer knows, it’s all too easy to press a button and take a peek at those online reviews. And after all, it’s what we crave: to be read.
It’s three years since I finished writing what would be my début novel, eventually titled The Last Summer. And it’s been a very busy three years – literally, gone in a flash.
Now, I have an inexplicable nostalgia for my unpublished days, before editorial deadlines, before book promotion, before anyone had read or reviewed my writing.
Those days were – and remain – curiously quiet and private, with an intimacy almost sacrosanct in my memory… like the very first weeks and months of my children’s lives. And those days lasted infinitely longer, and were all about writing. Bliss. There were no critical eyes, no one to put me off my stride or sway me from my innate desire to tell a story, and – eventually, hopefully – for that story to be read. Or that’s how it seems, now, sometimes.
Then, yesterday, I remembered someone, a man… let’s call him a friend of a friend.
As I politely replied to his obligatory, weary-sounding so what are you writing about? he smiled and rolled his eyes – just as though I was the one hundredth wannabe novelist he’d met that day. I should probably add that he was not in publishing (he was a healthcare professional – which I later discovered to be a euphemism for chiropractor), and he was a guest at a party here at my home.
When he interrupted my not-remotely-ready-for-publishers-pitch with, ‘but who will want to read it?’ I knew it wasn’t so much a question as a statement. It was designed to fell me – and it did.
I think all writers suffer self-doubt, particularly unpublished writers, which is what I was at that time.
I loved writing but I wasn’t sure how good my writing was. Securing an agent, becoming published and having readers would, I thought, answer that question.
I veered between moments of incredible clarity and determination and moments of despair and truly agonising self-doubt – when I wondered if I was in fact deluding myself. It’s a common enough affliction. Just because I liked to write didn’t necessarily mean I could write. I realised this. And there were a few others in my midst that had given me that same smile, as though I was what used to be termed ‘feeble-minded’.
Consequently, I dreaded people asking me what I did: I wrote, I was a writer, but I was an unpublished writer, and the world is full of them and I was another.
My husband – ever supportive and patient – had to put up with my one-minute sure and certain self-belief (with pillow-bashing promises of an impending book deal) and next minute angst (and pillow-bashing tears). Was I deluded? – I’d ask him, always late at night when he was trying to get to sleep, and of course, his answer was always ‘no’. Well, he would say that, I’d think, only to ask him again a day or two later. For my children’s sake, I’d decided, I had to finish my novel – and get it published. They’d lived with my writing for so long and had absolute blind faith that there would be a book – at The End; whenever that was to be.
Three years on, with two novels published worldwide and translated into a number of languages, I’m slowly, very slowly beginning to believe that I can tell a reasonably good story. But confidence is an ephemeral state, and it’s impossible to be objective about one’s own work. We have to rely on others’ judgement and feedback… and thus, we’re drawn like moths to the flickering of those online reviews – which can so easily burn us.
Of course writers shouldn’t be treated with Kidd gloves, nor should they be encouraged to think they can write good fiction if they can’t, but every opinion of every book is subjective, delivered by an individual with a unique perspective.
Personally, I prefer to remain silent on a book I haven’t enjoyed or don’t rate. I simply don’t endorse it. And I’m always aware that just because I don’t like something – be it a novel, poem, or painting – doesn’t mean someone else won’t.
I respect creativity, love art in all its forms, and respect those brave enough to produce something from nothing.
So no, we writers shouldn’t let reader reviews crush us; nor should we let them make us vain. And we should never be smug, about anything… But still, I’d like to reply to that man, the one who asked me, but who will want to read it?
Quite a few, it would seem.
Judith Kinghorn was born in Northumberland, England, educated there and in the Lake District, at a boarding school once attended by the Brontë sisters. She is a graduate in English and History of Art and worked in London, formerly as managing director of a company then owned by the novelist, the late Josephine Hart. Judith was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and nominated a Woman of the Year before giving up her career in order to focus on her family and her writing. She lives in Hampshire, England.
Sites That Link to this Post
- Featuring Women Writers on WWWB 2013 - Women Writers, Women Books | December 30, 2013