It was, I believe, Oscar Wilde who said 'I don't care what they say about me as long as they spell my name correctly...', or words to that effect. Perhaps, lacking skin as thick as Mr. Wilde, I do care what they say about me. At least to some small degree.
It has been interesting over the past few weeks watching the reviews that have been posted on Amazon regarding 'A Quiet Belief In Angels'. Obviously, small though it may be in comparison to the visibility of certain other literary, cinematic and musical luminaries, exposure is something of a two-edged sword. If no-one knows what you are doing then there is no target for criticism. The moment you put your head above the trench, look out for the shots.
Amazon is an interesting outlet. It accounts for approximately twenty percent of the books I have sold. It is also one of only two places where direct contact with readers can be established. The first point of contact is through my website, and the readers that e-mail me through the website are sufficiently interested in my work to have not only found the website, but to then send me a message. I must say I have never received a hostile, negative or critical e-mail. They have been - unanimously - messages of encouragement, support, sometimes questions regarding a book that has been read, in some cases questions from aspiring writers asking for help. I never let an e-mail go unanswered. The idea of failing to reply to someone is anathema to me.
So then we come to Amazon, again a means by which a reader can contact a writer, but not because the reader has a specific interest in a writer, but simply because they have read a book and want to make a comment. There is a scoring system, a grading from one to five for the book, one being the lowest grade, five being the highest. In excess of eighty percent of the reviews I have received for AQBIA have been four and five stars, and as we stand - out of a current total of eighty seven reviews - fifty eight of them have been of the highest grade. You would think that this would be reason to be pleased, but here we seem to highlight the fundamental human error, the fact that we always and invariably seem to concentrate on that with which we are dissatisfied, as opposed to that which meets our standard. I find it intriguing that there are reviews on Amazon of many, many, many wonderful books where the reviewer seems to have taken it upon themselves to be as vindictive, negative, personally vicious and hostile as they can be. On the Richard & Judy website there is on reviewer who has written not one, but four particularly nasty reviews of my book, and it reads as if she tried one review, thought perhaps that she had not been critical enough, and then proceeded to write another three, each time becoming more bold in her attacks, more vociferous in her hatred!
When I read similarly dreadful reviews of Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones), Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveller's Wife), Carlos Ruis Zafon (The Shadow of the Wind), Kate Morton (The House at Riverton), Louis De Bernieres (Captain Corelli's Mandolin) - choosing only these at random because they have been hugely successful and very, very popular - I sat back for a moment and contemplated the nature of criticism and the effect it might create on the creator of that which was being criticised. How did Alice Sebold feel when she read something so hostile, so barbed, so seemingly spiteful, and written by someone she had never met, and was never likely to meet? I am not questioning someone's right to like or dislike a book, a painting, a piece of music. That is not the point here. The point is whether or not there is some seed of an idea in the mind of an individual that drives them to destroy something that others evidently enjoy.
Bob Dylan made an interesting comment in a lyric. Struck by the seeming negative attitude of some people he met, he was inspired to comment on them as 'bent out of shape by society's pliers, care not to come up any higher, but rather drag you down in the hole that they're in...', and it seems that this observation might have been as astute as many other observations he made.
So, without preaching or attempting to be pretentious, or overblown, or trying to be something I am not, or just failing to write even a halfway decent book (as my critics have unreservedly pointed out as some of my many failings), I am going to remind anyone who might ever decide to create anything of any aesthetic value that sometimes 'constructive criticism' is just plain old criticism, and that generally the ones who are the most helpful are the ones who point out what's right about something in an effort to make it better.
Critics don't direct films or write books or compose music or stage plays or design buildings...they just stand on the sidelines and criticise those who do.
This, though it may sound negative, is not a criticism, just an observation.
So please - if for no other reason than it is your vocation, your calling, your reason to be - go ahead and write the book, compose the song, complete the lyrics, finish the paintings, and get them out there where the world can receive them. The world - at least the vast majority of the world - will accept what you have done and tell you what they love about it. The small (and I mean very small) percentage will tell you that you shouldn't have bothered, that what you have done has no value, was a waste of their time, and you really should have remained at home and stayed quiet. That's what they want you to do. Why? Because if you shine brightly, it makes them look even more dull than they already are.
Go shine. Do what you were meant to do. To hell with the critics.
Last question: Who can remember the name of the guy that told Michaelangelo that he should try something other than painting?
No, neither can I.
Until we speak again, take care, best wishes.