How do you react when someone criticizes your book?

Saul Bellow knew exactly what to tell book critics. Keep reading and you'll find out.
Saul Bellow knew exactly what to tell book critics. Keep reading and you’ll find out.

EVERY WRITER, sooner or later, suffers from the same malady.

It’s common.

It’s hearbreaking.

It’s emotional.

It’s not terminal.

Writers as a rule are sorely afflicted with self-doubt.

They write from the heart.

They pour out their soul.

Their words were handpicked.

Criticize their works and you might as well be making fun of their children.

Writers hold it against you.

They say they don’t.

But they do.

The process was best described by that great Southern writer Eudora Welty. She said that when she met with her editor and publisher and placed her manuscript in their hands, it was like walking into a room stark naked and turning slowly around,

There it is.

There’s the story full packed and intact, possessing all of its flaws and warts?

Don’t like it?

Don’t look for anything else.

It isn’t written yet.

And after a while, authors – one and all – begin to wonder if writing another book is really worth the effort.

I know.

I’m one of them.

We sulk.

We watch daylight become as dark as our souls.

Then another story begins to emerge, and we can’t wait to throw it on paper.

Maybe this is the one, we say.

Let’s give it a chance.

Writers – since the written word was first invented – have been blindsided with the pain and humiliation of rejection.

The editor of the San Francisco Examiner told Rudyard Kipling, “I’m sorry, sir, but you just don’t know how to use the English language.”

Don’t tell that to Gunga Din.

Stephen King, early in his career, had a book turned down, the publisher said, because “we are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.”

Maybe not.

But King sold a few.

William Golding’s classic, Lord of the Flies, was rejected by twenty publishers, with one calling his book “an absurd and uninteresting fantasy, which was rubbish and dull.”

He didn’t like it.

But our English teachers sure do.

When Joseph Heller finally got around to submitting his masterpiece, Catch 22, a publisher read it and wrote: “I haven’t the foggiest idea about what the man is trying to say … Apparently the author intends to be funny – possibly even satire – but it is really not funny on any intellectual level.”

Heller laughed on his way to the bank.

The publisher heard laughter, too.

The literary world was laughing at him.

As a writer, do you think you’ve had a bad day?

How about Tony Hillerman who wrote mystery novels about the Navajo Tribal Police.

He built his stories around the customs and legends, prejudice and hardships found on reservations and in Navajo society.

So what did the publisher tell him?

“Get rid of all that Indians stuff,” he said.

Hillerman didn’t.

Vladimir Nabakov thought his novel Lolita would be breaking new ground.

It did.

One publisher just didn’t like the way the ground had been broken.

He wrote Navakov that the novel “was overwhelmingly nauseating, even to an enlightened Freudian … the whole thing is an unsure cross between hideous reality and improbable fantasy. It often becomes a wild neurotic daydream … I recommend that it be buried under a stone for a thousand years.”

The stone wasn’t big enough to hold down Lolita.

Men weren’t either.

When Irving Stone wrote Lust for Life about Vincent Van Gogh, one of sixteen rejection letters sadly called the book “a long dull novel about an artist.”

Twenty-five million people disagreed.

They each bought a copy.

The traditionalists in New York’s haven for literary wonders certainly had no idea what, if anything, was running through Jack Kerouac’s mind when he sat down and scribbled the words for On The Road.

One publisher said of Kerouac, “His frenetic and scrambled prose perfectly expresses the feverish travels of the Beat Generation. But is that enough? I don’t think so.

America’s readers didn’t think it was enough either.

They wanted more of that scrambled prose.

And God help the publisher who read William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, threw up his hands, and said in anguish: “Good God, I can’t publish this!”

So how should writers react when criticisms and rejections plant seeds of doubt about their work?

Saul Bellow had the best idea for dealing with a bearer of bad news. “I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing,” he said. “They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, ‘To hell with you.”

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