‘The covers of this book are too far apart.’
– Ambrose Bierce
In terms of how well I weather criticism, I have a very thin skin. I have the skin of an Antarctic krill. An Antarctic krill doesn’t have skin exactly; it has a chitinous shell from which it sometimes ejects itself to use as a decoy against predators. The krill leaves this tiny ghost self behind while it makes a getaway. This is a way of saying, um, that when someone (clearly a predator) criticises something I’ve done, I will usually fire off a decoy reaction – ‘Oh yes, good point, you are right, everything is fine’ – and then I hastily retreat, naked and small and bereft, into the depths. There, I wait for my dainty shell to re-grow.
Criticism can be very good for a person. It can be a gift. We know this. And useful criticism of creative work (and of anything, really) – whether it’s in a published review, a workshop, a conversation or email with a friend or family member, whatever – nearly always grows out of respect: respect for what someone’s work is trying to do, respect for the person who made it and how hard it might have been.
So that’s great. But also, criticism can really hurt, can lodge itself like a cursed stone in your shoe in a way that praise never really does. It can feed our worst insecurities and replay horribly in our minds, usually when we are just about to give an important presentation or go to a party. It replays even more furiously once we have made a shambles of the presentation and have fled the party at 9 o’clock, weeping. I think criticism is felt especially keenly by those of us who don’t have healthy self-esteem. Self-esteem is a tedious responsibility that we are lumbered with from birth – like owning a pet, we are duty-bound to feed this thing, keep it healthy; we can’t go anywhere happily unless it’s taken care of. I recently listened to a podcast that more aptly described self-esteem as your armour in the world: the healthier your self-esteem, the more resilient you are. Words have to be particularly sharp to break through the armour into the soft innards beneath. When we say someone has a thick skin, I think we just mean they have good self-esteem.
None of us is exempt from occasionally being told that our work is just no good and that, by extension, we are no good. None of us is exempt from being told that we should be grateful for receiving any feedback at all. But maybe we can learn something from one another in how to deal with this. Or, if not that, then find some small comfort in one another’s responses. I decided to ask some people whose work I really like – mostly they are writers, and some are performers – whether criticism is easy for them to take. I am especially interested in how they move on from it, or not.
This is the first of a two-part post.
Eamonn Marra, comedian
Most the reviews and criticism I have had have been positive. I’m not sure if this is because I deserved it, or if it’s because I come across as quite vulnerable when performing and people feel the need to protect me from bad criticism. So most the time criticism has been a positive experience.
Except for one review from comedy festival show from last year ‘Man on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown’. The opening night was a mess, I was underprepared and had not rehearsed the show enough. I lost my place constantly and ended up essentially reading the show off a piece of paper. The next day I got two reviews: one was nice enough but said I needed to work on it, the other was very harsh and made me feel like the show was unworkable and I was a bad comedian, rather than underprepared and messy. I think the harsh review was more accurate of the show to be honest. The first night was not good at all but it hit me pretty hard. I spent the next day in bed feeling sad then did the show again that night and it was even worse than the first night. Then the next day I spent all day rehearsing and practising and rewriting and for the last two nights it went really well. And luckily I got a really good review and won an award from the last two nights which mostly cancelled out the shitty feeling from the first two nights.
I think if it wasn’t for the bad review I would have worked on it a day earlier rather than wallowing in sadness for a day, but then maybe I wouldn’t have worked as hard as I did to make the show better. And I don’t even really hold anything against the reviewer who gave me a bad review in the end, because I think I did deserve it because my show was shit on the first night, and he was being honest rather than trying to protect me. The only thing which I got annoyed at was in the review he compared me to Woody Allen which I would rather not be because he is a paedophile.
Morgan Bach, poet
One of my early experiences of criticism of the negative kind was in an undergraduate writing class, where something I was trying to pass off as a short story (but was really of no defined genre, though it made some kind of thematic sense as a ‘piece’, to me) got savaged. At first it was hard to take, but then I got a kind of sick pleasure out of it. The masochist in me started relishing it, and wanting more. By the time I got to an MA workshop, I was asking them to get the knives out and really hack into my work, though I feel I’ve still been treated gently to this point. Having just published a first collection, I must be slightly dreading what’s coming (in terms of reviews, etc), as the prospect of reading them from the other side of the world has held enough appeal for me to book my flight there. It’s not a particularly sustainable tactic for a writer, though, with all our cash for plane tickets.
John-Paul Young, musician and music therapist
When I had just about finished recording my second album, I sent off a rough copy to my older brother – whose opinions about music I have valued enormously since about the age of 14.
Neil responded with a very thorough and thoughtful email, going through the album track by track and dismantling each of the songs. He correctly assessed that many of the songs were half-baked and would benefit from further reworking. I should stress that this was not done in a mean or belittling way, but really trying to make the songs better.
Unfortunately the email arrived after I’d already spent hundreds of dollars and many weeks recording these apparently unfinished songs, so it was rather discouraging.
The best way to have responded would have been to follow Neil’s advice and whittle away the weaker songs until I was left with a (smallish) EP of good songs. Instead, I set about bowdlerising and butchering the songs that he had taken particular exception to – obliterating and/or replacing lyrics with bursts of feedback and guitar solos, re-recording and changing parts of songs, etc. The end result was that I lost all confidence and perspective on the songs, and turned in one of my patchiest efforts to date.
Although it was chastening experience, I am grateful that I had some honest feedback about the album. I learnt from this episode, and spent a lot more time writing and planning the songs for my third album. I didn’t go near a studio until I felt that they were as good as I could make them. This meant I felt a lot more confident during the recording process and then afterwards, when it came time to foist the album on the public.
Harry Ricketts, poet, biographer, academic
What to do about negative criticism, a bad review? Ideally, you should try to see whether the person has a point which you can learn from. Maybe that poem, novel, painting, play or song really wasn’t as wonderful as it seemed in the heat of making it. Or it is, but this reviewer or friend or whoever has quite different preferences and tastes. In practice, of course, it’s almost impossible to turn the resentment, hurt, sense of being squelched, misunderstood, under-appreciated etc. into such productive channels; the misery gnaws away. But trying to direct the misery somewhere else, to use it, is a good idea, if you can. I’ve sometimes written a lampoon or clerihew about the person. Two other things I do are talk to a sympathetic friend who knows what it’s like, and I go back to poems or pieces of writing of mine that I’m as sure as I can be are fairly good. I did it before; I can do it again (perhaps).
Tim Upperton, poet
I haven’t had many reviews, so I should be grateful for the ones I get, I suppose. But I’m not. I remember a sentence from a review of my first poetry collection: ‘Heavy poems can leave a reader with an intense grimy experience.’ I guess that means something, but what? What’s a ‘heavy poem’? Are my poems insufficiently uplifting, for his taste? I quite like ‘an intense grimy experience’, but I don’t think the reviewer does. Fuck him.
Martyn Pepperell, DJ and music writer
A few years ago I interviewed Flying Lotus. He told me that he felt like ‘Everything was on the line, all of the time.’ As someone who leans towards expecting the worst, I related to the sentiment. The flipside of expecting the worst is you tend to be pleasantly surprised by how things actually play out. Sure, while I might have a micro freak-out after clicking ‘send’ or ‘post’, the feedback that comes back is never as bad as the scenarios I can nightmare up inside my mind.
It’s nowhere nearly as easy as this sounds, but it’s just a case of objectively looking your feedback or critique over and asking yourself if any of it is worth taking on board. If it is, you’ve just been given the opportunity to develop yourself, which is pretty great really. If not, it is what it is. No matter how crushing the feedback or criticism is, it doesn’t compare to how good it feels when everything lines up smoothly. But you’re just not going to get to that place without critique, internal or external (preferably both).
Hinemoana Baker, poet and musician
I used to think of myself as quite sensitive about my writing, but 12 years in a writing group has disabused me of pretty much all vestiges of that. Now I kind of crave it. There’s very little more satisfying to me nowadays than someone telling me they don’t think a poem is working, and here’s why . . . Of course it’s way more fun if they say unequivocally that they love it and I’m a genius. But I wouldn’t believe them, anyway, if not for the fact that they can critique effectively.
It was harder earlier on. When I was doing the MA in Creative Writing I got a couple of stinging critiques, and one of them was from someone I totally idolised. It was personal, nasty and not terribly useful to me as a writer. I think if I got it nowadays I would just assume that the person had been particularly out of sorts that day. But back then, I went to bed for a couple of weeks, until Bill Manhire rang me and was kind to me down the phone. Then I got up again.
In terms of shrugging things off – well, my catch-phrase of the last few weeks is (it changes regularly) Grow the Fuck Up. Mean, I know. But there are a few areas in my life where it’s proving quite useful at the moment.
Rhodri Marsden, journalist, member of many bands
I find it quite hard to deal with the idea of having disappointed people. Whether I subsequently experience insecure misery or indignant fury depends on how good the original piece of work was, I guess, and whether the criticism was justified. Often it is; in journalism I’ll get facts wrong or write clumsily, in bands I’ll do shit gigs or make distinctly average records. And if I know I’ve not done something that’s up to scratch I think I sometimes try and hide from criticism; I won’t read the comments or the reviews and just resolve to just do better next time.
But if the criticism is based upon lazy, judgemental thinking then I’ll want to confront it – but these days I rarely bother. There was an incident a few years ago when I wrote something for The Independent about Apple’s launch of the App Store, and someone in the comments section got the wrong end of the stick (mainly due to poor phrasing on my part) and gave me a hard time. I responded in a sarcastic fashion and had a rant about it on Facebook. Next thing I know I’m featured in Private Eye; they reported the facts wrongly and it made me look not only touchy but also completely ignorant.
I think I realised at that point that you have to either swallow the criticism or, if you’re going to react at all, react politely and humbly. Otherwise bad feeling just explodes, with geyser-like force. For example, I got some stick on Twitter last year for something I wrote about Walthamstow. One bloke was being particularly vicious, and I really don’t understand that behaviour; it IS possible to criticise without being abusive, and yet abusive mode seems to be the default. Anyway, I was just persistently nice back, and after an hour or two he calmed down and invited me out for a pint to chat about it. (I didn’t go, though.)
Given that there’ll always be someone who thinks that your work is a heap of shit, and that you’re fairly likely to hear about it, you’ve got to adopt the attitude that it doesn’t really matter. Otherwise your self esteem will spiral downwards in a vortex of your own making. But at the same time, you’ve got to be attuned to the criticism that’s justified in order to improve your own work. Striking that balance isn’t easy. But I’m finding it easier. Maybe it’s to do with getting older. Or just my brain adapting to the realities of life online.
James McNaughton, novelist, poet in a former life
I find reviews incredibly distracting when I’m working. For me, writing involves a kind of balancing act – if anything breaks my focus I fall off the high wire, or can’t climb up to it. I appreciate warnings: ‘Incoming!’ so I can steel myself and keep dreaming.
But there comes a time when you have to wake up and run away from the circus. Strangely relieved, you wander with tumbleweeds. An old newspaper cartwheels past. You grab it, because you’ll read anything. Incredibly, there’s a review of your novel! Touched and full of gratitude you read it with your utmost attention. And then you read it again.