Coping with Critics, the Zen Way
As the story goes, Buddha was wandering the countryside with his disciples. He would stop occasionally and give a lecture, and when he did so the peasants in the area would gather to listen.
One day he was doing this, sitting under the shade of a large tree with many people gathered around him, and one of the local villagers approached him aggressively. “I am sick of you wandering holy men!” the villager shouted at Buddha. The crowd gaped. “People like you are always visiting this village, telling us villagers how we should live our lives, and expecting money and food for your worthless teachings. I curse you and I curse your disciples!” The man ranted like this for several more minutes, hurling foul words and horrible accusations at the Buddha. During this period the Buddha sat calm and unintimidated, not responding.
When the man finished venting his rage, the Buddha surprised him by saying, “Can I ask you a question?” Suspicious, the man said, “What question?” “If I offered you a present and you refused it, who would then own the present?” Buddha asked. Puzzled, the man answered, “If I refused the present then you would still own it.”
Buddha nodded and said, “In a way, you are offering me the present of criticism and correction. You feel there is something wrong with my teachings and that my motivation is dark and selfish. But your heart is full of bile and anger. You are not trying to correct me. Instead, you are trying to embarrass and denounce me. Such a present is one I must refuse. You are not trying to help or improve me. You simply want to heap abuse on a fellow human before you have heard or understand him. So, your angry words remain with you. You remain their rightful owner.”
This little tale might be seen as a more esoteric version of a schoolyard taunt (“I’m rubber and you’re glue. Whatever you say bounces off me and sticks on to you”). But look at what the Buddha really said. He was not averse to receiving comments designed to improve him or his message, but he is not going to accept words designed to please the speaker, not help the recipient.
This brings us to literary critics.
To begin with, the name we give people who write reviews is bad: Critics. It could easily be Reviewers or Analysts (and it occasionally is), but as soon as we call them “critics” we expect them to criticize. Of course, any book has a lot to criticize. No book (including mine – make that, especially mine!) is perfect. There are usually many things that could be improved.
Unfortunately, critics often present their comments in a caustic way. I’ve seen them refer to a writer as “unfortunately prolific.” I’ve seen reviews that question a writer’s education, intelligence, or character. Please note that a critic has the right to hate a book, but it doesn’t help the reader if the reason for this hate is not explained. A snide remark is not a substitute for good analysis.
Luckily for me, most critics have been kind. This can be dangerous because any crumb of critical approval can pump you up and delude you into thinking you know how to write. Most writers find this attitude towards good reviews strange. But if you keep a proper Zen detachment from criticism, you’re trying to maintain an equilibrium. Comments from critics shouldn’t pump you up too high or drag you down too low.
One thing I hate is the unsigned review. If you read a publication regularly you form an opinion of reviewers. You get to know that if a particular reviewer likes a book, you will probably like it, too. But if a review doesn’t have the name of the reviewer, you can’t draw any conclusions over time. This is an especially difficult situation for a writer. There are some critics I read carefully and consider any suggestions or complaints they might have. As with my editors, I trust their judgment. There are a few critics that don’t like my work (for whatever reason – the “best” review I’ve gotten from a particular source is basically “I can’t hate this book as much as I’d like to!”).
Unfortunately, when publications don’t attach a name to a review any analysis based on the critic’s past work is impossible. I’ve had some critics tell me they don’t like anonymity with their reviews, but I’m not aware of any effort to boycott publications that insist on anonymous reviews.
With Amazon and the Internet, of course, anyone can get into the review game. As you might expect. some of these reviews are thoughtful and professional and some are silly (most of my books get four and five-star reviews on Amazon, but one got a one-star review because the reader had some kind of shipping dispute with Amazon! I pointed this out to Amazon and they removed the “review” that never mentioned my book).
I’ve only responded to one professional review directly. It was generally a positive review but it criticized the book because it had a Japanese samurai who had empathy. I try not to give any historical character modern attitudes, but empathy is a common human emotion and it’s reflected in Japanese poetry, among other things. I couldn’t understand if the reviewer thought historical characters or Japanese characters shouldn’t have empathy, but either way, I was offended.
I wrote the publication a letter explaining that, while I appreciated the positive review, I did not appreciate a comment that a Japanese historical figure was expected to not have a common human emotion. The next issue of the publication had a long editorial about how qualified a reviewer should be to review historical novels, but that missed my point. I didn’t care that the reviewer wasn’t knowledgeable about Japanese history. My concern was the critic thought time, culture, or race should somehow dehumanize a character.
You would have to be a particular kind of masochist to enjoy your writing being dissected in a public forum. Even when the comments are good, they’re not helpful unless they come from a source you respect and trust.
I’ve talked to some aspiring writers who were petrified by the idea that public reviews of their work can appear. This attitude makes me tremendously sad. For me, one of the joys of writing is seeing your work finished and presented to the reading public. I’ve had eight novels and three non-fiction books published, and every one of those gave me a glowing high when I first saw and handled the finished book.
A Zen sense of detachment is what should be developed towards any criticism of your work. Good or bad, you have to evaluate if the criticism is valid or invalid. Good or bad, you have to decide if the criticism is true or not.
Both the writer and the critic are working for the reader, but writers and critics have very different jobs. As writers, we can only work on improving our writing, but we should use detachment to analyze the critic’s work to see if the review is a “gift” you want to accept or refuse.