HANDLING THE CRITICS
Bob Varva is a photographer, and a very fine one. Born in Glendale, California, he was living in Spam when I got to know him. His specialty was photographing animals and, in particular, the fighting bulls of Spain. When author James Michener saw his photographs, he became so impressed with Bob’s work that he commissioned him to illustrate his book-Iberia. Michener was in Spain doing research for a book he planned to write on Mexico. His research included bull fighting which resulted in his meeting a number of matadors, including the American matador John Fulton Short and the greatest of all master matadors Juan Belmonte. Michener became so enamored with Spain, and with the people that he met, he decided to write Iberia instead, and he put Mexico on hold. In lberia, published two years later, he wrote about meeting John Fulton and his photographer friend Bob Varva.
One day when I went to Bob’s apartment on Colon Street in Seville, he was rather distraught. A critic had attacked him, saying his photos were too sanguinary to illustrate a book by Michener. We were discussing the matter when Michener arrived to go over details in the book. Introductions were made. This was the first time I had met Michener. There were other times, many, but this was the first. My immediate thought when he entered the room was that he too had read the critic’s remark. Was he going to be sympathetic and sick: with Bob, or would he agree with the critic? I soon found out. Michener looked at Bob, put a hand on his shoulder, and said, “Forget it.” That was it-forget it. Michener then explained his reason. He told how critics had panned his first book and it was almost enough to make him give up writing. He was concerned that the first printing, only a few thousand copies, might not sell.
Michener got his taste for writing when he was a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy during World War II, assigned to record the history of the Pacific war. During this time be wrote a few magazine articles, nothing much, and these were mostly about the war, about the men and women fighting in it. When he decided to put all stories together into a book, which he titled Tales of the South Pacific, the critics had a good laugh. They laughed but the last laugh was on them. The book became a best seller. The critics laughed again when Broadway planned to turn the book into a musical titled South Pacific. The Broadway musical was a tremendous success. “You would think they would have stopped laughing by now,” Michener said, “but they didn’t, and it got worse when Hollywood decided to make a movie from the play. The critics really went wild.” The movie, as we know, became a classic. From that time on, Michener stopped paying attention to critics. “Rely upon your own judgment,” he told Bob Varva. I made up my mind then that I too would do the same. It was a pretty wild commitment on my part, considering, at the time, I had had only one story published and that was hardly Pulitzer Prize stuff, a story for The Writers Digest.
I must say James Michener was very encouraging. He knew I was interested in writing and he wished me luck. He was not like Mr. Sullivan at Life magazine in New York. When I met Michener again, years later, he asked how my writing was doing. We met several times over the years.
A critic, I discovered, can destroy a writer, deliberately or unintentionally. We might rightfully say a critic’s opinion doesn’t really matter, but for a beginner, as I was at the time, it did matter. Unfortunately, this was before I met James Michener. When I began writing my first novel, I envisioned it making the bestseller list with reviews in Time and Newsweek. I didn’t share this thought with others, especially my wife, who was convinced I was wasting time. She particularly didn’t like it when I got up long before her every morning and put in an hour or two on my novel which I had titled The Tower & The River. I had based the book on some of my experiences when I worked for the naval Attaché in Paris, about the same time that America announced its astronaut program. The military was going to put a man into space. l decided to set my plot in Paris, a city I knew something about. Then I imagined myself as a test pi lot who successfully made the first space flight. Naturally, as a gung ho Marine, I made the protagonist in my novel a Marine fighter pilot who had his eyes on the moon. In my storyline, he was certain to be chosen for the program, especially after his short but successful flight in space. But the brass at the Pentagon had other ideas. I had them send my hero to Paris instead of space, for propaganda purposes. I was sure my novel would be a success, and I devoted much of my time and effort in the manuscript.
At the time, I was teaching at a college preparatory school in Washington, D.C. The mother of one of my students was a writer. I don’t know what type or writing she did, but her daughter thought she was the greatest writer that ever lived. She was the kind of daughter that every writer wished he bad.
One day, between classes, I had my novel on my desk when the student came into the room, saw the manuscript and asked what it was. I told her I was writing a novel. She became very interested, and it was then she said her mother was a writer.
This went on for a while, and the student kept asking how the writing was coming along. After about a month, when the student asked me again about my book and how the writing was doing, I casually mentioned that writing a novel wasn’t easy.
“If you would like,” she said, “I can have my mother look it over and give you her opinion.”
At first, I was against the idea, but then I asked myself what was I hiding from? Why not let another, an unbiased writer, make some criticisms? Of course, I had in mind the positive. Writers like to be praised, especially those who are just beginning. They have tough enough battles ahead, and any compliment is most encouraging. Compliments can make us feel good, giving us a sense of accomplishment. Approval can make us want to improve our writing even more. What I learned from that experience is disapproval is also a factor. I didn’t consider that a cold response, a critical remark, could crush my spirit. I hadn’t met Michener yet to encourage me. I discovered then what others think of us could have a profound effect on whether or not we continue our efforts at writing. I had to take the chance, and I lost. I had turned my manuscript over to my student to give to her mother. That was the toughest thing I ever had to do, but I rationalized thinking that I had nothing to lose. But I was wrong. I had a lot to lose.
It was about a week later, a week of agonizing waiting and prodding, when the mother of my student sent the manuscript back to me. Attached was a short note. It was brief, and regrettable. It said I should get someone to teach me how to write. It was the cruelest thing someone could have said to me. I was deflated. Maybe I could never write a novel. Maybe I should have given her daughter a better grade. Maybe my wife was right; it was best I quit wasting my time. I put the manuscript aside. I didn’t touch it for twenty years. I don’t know what compelled me to take it out of hiding, except it may have been that I had just read The World According to Garp. Garp wanted to be a serious writer, but his mother looked at all writing to be nothing more than lackadaisical verbiage. To prove a point to her son, she wrote a book on her own, and it became an instant success. Was this the same? Was my student’s mother laughing at me? Was she a competent critic? Had I made a mistake? I dug out my novel and looked at it. When I did, I liked it. It had merit. Of course, it needed more work. What I had shown to my student’s mother had only been a draft. That was a terrible mistake. And how wrong it was to give a manuscript to someone I didn’t even know. I never questioned who this woman was. Was she truly a writer?
I spent the next few months working on the manuscript, completed it and sent it to Wolfenden Publisher under the title The Tower & The River. It was accepted and six months later went into a second printing. I had wasted twenty years thinking I’d never make it as a novelist. I now follow the advice of Mario Puzo who said, “Never show your stuff to anybody. You can get inhibited.” He then went on to say when you become inhibited, your creativity suffers. How true that is. The point is, I learned to be careful about who I show my work to, no matter what business they’re in. Puzo had another bit of advice to writers. “Above all,” he insisted, “never try to make a publishing deal on the basis of an outline whether it’s a novel, a play or a movie script.”
What I learned from that experience is never let anyone evaluate my work until it is ready for publication. I cannot expect someone else to whip me into shape. I have to do that myself. A writer knows when it’s wrong, and to know it’s wrong and do nothing about it is shear laziness. That’s what Michener was trying to tell Bob Varva and me. You are your best critic, but you must be honest with yourself. Don’t gloss over a story or manuscript and say, “That’s good enough.” Good enough is not acceptable. It has to be the best you can do. As my papa on the farm used to tell me when I was a kid, if a horse has a loose shoe, it is never good enough; that shoe could come off and hit you in the head.
I know not to mislead myself. Writers can benefit when editors check their work. However, I must exercise good judgment in choosing whom I turn to for criticism, and I must react sensibly to their opinions. I am also aware too much praise can be destructive. “Praise shames me,” wrote Rabindranath Tagore, the Indian poet. And then be added: “For I secretly beg for it.” We are all that way, but it’s false praise that does the most harm.
I have in my latter years refrained from giving a manuscript to a non-professional to look over. Also, even the professionals, by their very nature, feel compelled to make some criticism, whether it is valid or not. I remember this so well when I accepted a government job in Washington, D.C. I had briefs and letters to write, and each and every one of them had to be checked by my immediate boss. He had to find some error, even if it was a comma out of place. If he didn’t, he felt he was not a competent boss. And on up the line it went. The guy at the very top bad to make his mark, and down it came to the bottom to begin all over again. Thus, I learned to beware of those who have to find fault just to show their own importance. In the end, I have to be my own judge.
As I mentioned, a good way to judge the weight of a story is to talk it over with friends, but don’t tell them what you are doing. You might discuss the theme of your idea to see what their reactions are, but stop there. I often do this with friends at dinner. And when I give a talk or have a book signing, I like to feel out my audience. I see what interests them. Without fail, I will be asked what is my next book, my next project, my next adventure.
People don’t like to listen to retired folk, to has-beens, no matter how knowledgeable they might be.
I constantly have to remind myself it is not possible to please everyone. I don’t even try anymore. Seasoned writers learn to ignore comments by the critics, as Michener indicated when I met him in Spain. Success comes with a lot of envy. I had to arm myself by being prepared to shun cruel and cutting comments.
What’s that adage, “When you fail, try again.” I like what Michael Crichton had to say about that-“Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.”
Perseverance is what he was saying.