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Sian S. Rathore

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Why Critics Aren't Everything and Why Writing Is

Posted: 2/05/2012 00:00

Being a writer is tough. In a world where everyone who owns a Macbook and lives near a coffee house is a novelist, getting your work recognised is difficult, having it appraised even harder. Given the adage that 'everyone's a critic' now, there are a surprisingly small amount of critics in ratio to the amount of writers needing immediate self-gratification, preferably in the form of a five-star amazon review or at least a 500 word write-up in a magazine with local circulation.

I have been a critic for much longer than I have been a poet. I saw criticism as my 'way in' to literature. I realised early that I am much better at having a discerning eye for detail than I am at delivering work that is of the standard that I expect of others and I can admit that without any hint of humour or irony. It takes a certain kind of person to be a critic, and it is true that a critic is often a frustrated version of the very thing they are criticising, and I am that kind of person. The outrage at a bad review is often: "Yes, well I'd like to see YOU try to do this" and begs the question: can restaurant critics ever actually cook? Can music critics ever write a game-changing hit? Could Simon Cowell get up on stage and deliver a stirring performance of Someone Like You pitch perfect? Most importantly, can literary critics actually write?

The answer to this is, it isn't important. Even when given that most writers looking to pursue a career in poetry or fiction will first become critics, it is not important. The job of the critic is to see things the writer can't, to check over the work and to give people a rough idea of whether or not it is worth their money and attention, and since in the world of literature writers have long since given up on the idea that any money will be made at all, attention makes the world go round.

Releasing a book must be scary. Throwing your innermost thoughts out there to the world and expecting people to at least acknowledge it with a few kind words, or any words at all. In order to write a book you will have had to spend hours and hours editing, deleting huge chunks of what you thought were important parts to your narrative. You will have had to have found a publisher, and maybe you'll have been given an advance. This will have given your ego a huge boost because you will of course know lots of writers who would give an arm and a leg to actually have their name affiliated with a house. Maybe you've simply released an ebook but that itself required a process. You will know a lot of the right people, you will have spent a long time networking and getting to know who's who in order to get noticed and then suddenly, this heady journey comes to an abrupt anti-climax when the book itself is flung out there into the wide world without so much as a by-your-leave. All you have left is your computer, a reliable search engine, and the willpower to not refresh the page every five seconds to see if your efforts have been picked up by the critics yet. You will have sent your book to a few of the main magazines of criticism and you will have to wait whilst they sift through their endless backlog until it is your turn to be reviewed, and even then you have no idea whether they'll like it or not.

Sometimes, if you are that worried, you might even contact a critic directly. If you are a writer then you should take away from this article this one piece of advice: never, ever do this.
Many is the time I've logged into Facebook of all places to find messages in my inbox kindly requesting that I give their book a once-over and offer a favourable opinion (this is normally unsubtly inferred in the body of the message, that the review has to be good). Most of the time, I will read the things I have been sent and if I feel strongly stirred either way, I will write back to them with a review they can use, or ask them if I can submit the review to one of the magazines I write for. However recently, I was sent a message by a young author asking me for a nice review. When, four days later, he hadn't heard from me, he launched a tirade of het-up tantrum talk all over my Facebook and Twitter page. I doubt this is the last time this will happen.

It made me think, however. It is true that now everyone is a writer, but not everyone is a critic. The balance has changed now and everyone feels they have something creative to give to the world, and this is no bad thing, though as a writer I believe you must develop a thicker skin than most. You are throwing yourself at the mercy of the critics, those who believe their opinion holds some sway, as you wonder which way their thumb will turn and what this means for your future career. It is perhaps not a good idea to try to influence the critics, it is a worse idea to antagonise them, and even worse still to display that your one weakness is the fact that you can only gain self-validation through the words of others. Even without the critics, you will have people say things to you on any of the myriad social networks you will no doubt be attached to that you may not like. You might get an inflammatory "@" reply on twitter, or someone might write something sarcastic on your Author Page on facebook.

As I said at the beginning of this article, being a writer is tough, and being reviewed isn't everything, and probably most people don't even read those things anyway. But if you're the sort of writer who needs reassurance (which most of us truly are), it is best not to antagonise the critics, or give a rise to those who have irked you. When you write something for public consumption you have created a piece of art that you want people to engage with, but above all, you have written something that makes you feel joyous for having created. If anything supersedes this joy, you ought to give up immediately. Not because you don't have the skill, but because you will eventually drive yourself quite mad.

 

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