Recently I was watching a documentary about Stephen Sondheim. In this documentary he was discussing that, as a teenager, he asked Oscar Hammerstein to critique his work. What he got back was a point by point account of why the product didn’t work (or something to that effect). Hammerstein went on to say that if you are going to ask, you have to be ready to take the heat.
One of the most heart stopping parts of putting my writing out there was getting reviews. On one hand, an impartial review adds credibility to my books. On the other hand, a negative or even a lukewarm review could be devastating. That’s what I thought anyway. The first “meh” review left me questioning whether or not I had any talent, was I cut out for this, etc. etc.
That is, until I ran across a Facebook post of an author I admired. She was participating in the “one star” challenge where authors went and read their one star reviews. As near as I can determine, it was an exercise in thickening your skin. Out of curiosity I went to Goodreads and pulled up some of my top ten books to look at their reviews. Surely, I thought, everyone would think the same thing I did about them. To my surprise there were many two and three stars, and even a few one star reviews. On MY favorite books! How could this be!??
Does this make my opinion any less valid? Of course not. After all, it is only my opinion, just as it is only their opinion. It was an eye opening moment for me. If people could feel that way about books that I’ve dogeared, with post-its on them to mark particular favorite passages, what did that say about the opinions of my works? They are not wrong, and neither am I. It’s an opinion. We all have them.
Then I realized something else. When trying to decide if I want to read a book or not, I go to the two and three star reviews. I automatically eliminate both the one and the five star reviews in my mind, figuring that I’m not going to get anything useful from something so negative nor something so positive in making my determination. It’s in the two and three star reviews that I get what I need. As an author I want and appreciate those five star reviews, but the truth is that the three star reviews have value. They tell me where that novel is falling down for a reader, and where I may want to look into shoring up my storytelling for the future.
What Stephen Sondheim relayed about Oscar Hammerstein echoed with me. If I’m going to do this, if I’m going to publish my books and not sit on them, reading them back only to myself, I have to be ready to embrace other people’s opinions. What is the alternative, after all? Who is the failure – the person who puts their work out there to lukewarm reviews, or the person who publishes only in their own mind? One is trying, the other is failing by not trying. For a long time I fell into the latter category and it’s only recently that I’ve taken the leap into the former. Take a look at cooking shows (which I love). Who is more of a success – the person who goes on national television and gets cut in the first round, or the person who hides in their kitchen, never putting their skills to the test? We are all superstars in our minds.
It’s not an easy road. Nobody likes to get criticized. I’ve lived and breathed these characters and their lives are real to me. But I think I can learn something from my methodology of reading reviews. As much as I enjoy the five star reviews, it’s in the two and three star reviews that I grow. Don’t get me wrong, I love getting the five star reviews. It shows that I’m reaching people the way that I want to be reached when I read, deep inside, like someone brought out my private wants and fulfilled them. The lesser reviews tell me how to get there. After all, if Oscar Hammerstein had sugar coated his opinion to a fifteen year old Stephen Sondheim, he wouldn’t have done the young man any favors. It was only by the brutal truth that Sondheim had started to develop his skills and become the master that he is today. I can only hope that by continuing to learn and grow, and accept criticism, that I can hone my craft as well.