In most professions, people don't see fit to comment on how you are doing your job. You might have an annual review, but that's, at most, a slightly uncomfortable hour with the boss. Your colleagues in the office don't tend to lean across their desks and deliver a devastating precis on your plus and minus points, and nor do complete strangers tend to tap you on the shoulder on the bus and say that they've observed you through your office window that afternoon and that they think they could have been doing a much better job in your place. And that's just how it should be. But for us writers, the world is a rather different sort of place - something that has been particularly brought home to me in the past couple of months. Yes, I'm talking about reviews.
Most writers, once they've plucked up the courage, show their work to a trusted friend or family member once in a while. But the harsh truth is that the vast majority of friends and family members don't really review our work. They read it, clouded by the knowledge that it has sprung from the pen of someone they will have to face in social situations for many years to come. Perhaps they're blinded by its brilliance, simply because they can't believe that someone they know is capable of writing a book. Perhaps they think it's awful, but can't bring themselves to blurt the words out. Either way, the end result is usually much the same: a bright smile, an enthusiastic "I really enjoyed it!" and perhaps a couple of diffident criticisms about the odd comma here and there before boomeranging back to praise. All very nice, but not perhaps a robust enough preparation for the big bad world out there when you become published.
In the past couple of months, my novel, The Art of Losing, has been reviewed by the Independent, the Guardian, and the Financial Times, amongst others. I was ecstatic to learn that the "big boys" thought my novel worthy of a paragraph... and yes, the reviews have - thankfully - been pretty good. But it's amazing how your eye flies, like a precision bullet shot at point blank range, to the most negative thing you can find. Forget the endorsements that the novel was "gripping", "finely-crafted", "tautly written" and possessed of a "curdled sensuality" (I particularly liked the sound of that, actually)... They thought it was "too clever"! They thought the "twist" was "predictable"! It's incredible how much emotion a few little words can provoke. First there is grief (if you'll permit a little hyperbole). Sobbing, hair-tearing, all that. Next is anger. "It wasn't even meant to be a twist! It was meant to be predictable! Oh they've TOTALLY MISSED THE POINT."
But then, thankfully, comes acceptance. Grudging acceptance, maybe... but ultimately, I found myself falling back on the inevitable realisation that not everyone will unreservedly love your work. In fact, probably hardly anyone will. How many books have you read, of which you have absolutely no criticism at all? Not many, I'll bet - and if you do, please share which ones so that we can all expand our reading! Reviews may hurt - but after the first shock has died down, you'll be able to look back and find the compliments you first missed. And then when a rave does come along, it's all the sweeter.
Of course, that's just professional reviewers. Don't even get me started on the evil amateurs of Amazon...