At the office last Friday, I was talking to a patient about our artwork: her painting, my writing. She used to paint tote bags and sell them at the farmers market. It was hard work, she said, because so many people would walk past, shaking their heads, saying they have plenty of tote bags and don’t need another. Other times she’d sell one and realize afterward that it had been her favorite; it saddened her to lose the art she had made. That’s interesting to me, because as writers we don’t ever lose access to our work, though our relationship to it may change according to public perception. I told her about Alice Close Your Eyes, and admitted how difficult it is to see a stack of one- and two-star reviews on GoodReads, or uncover some bitter diatribe on Amazon, or hear your husband explain how his friend’s wife threw the book across the room in a fury. You feel your pride at the accomplishment eroding, and in its place…regret? Apology? Shame?
The conversation brought to mind a scene from Chef—a terrific movie, by the way—in which the title character reacts to a scathing review of his cooking by going on a rant, yelling, “It hurts when you say those things, because we’re trying to do something good. We’re trying…”
I remember being sort of shocked by the character’s outburst. That he would admit to being hurt, out loud, right in the critic’s face and with a crowd of people to witness it. That isn’t done! If you make something, whether it’s food or tote bags or a book, and that thing requires a creative effort, then you’ve got to take the criticism and shut up and deal with it. You don’t talk back. You don’t admit to hurt feelings. Your vulnerability is irrelevant, and if you want to play the game then you have to rub the mud out of your eye and get on with it. He wasn’t doing that. He was saying no mas!
To be fair, the harsh criticism did spur the character on to bigger and better things, so clearly it has its place. He found a way to use the pain—first by acknowledging it, then by reassessing his creative process. In the end, he emerges triumphant, reborn and revitalized. Of course he does; this is the movies. But the lingering question for me concerns the culture that’s evolved around art and critique:
Why is criticism always one-sided? Why are we not allowed to defend ourselves, or even admit when it hurts?