I had a friend who when she did not like a book was not content to merely dislike it. She was ready to tear the book to pieces and consign it to the lowest levels of hell.
Sometimes the books she hated were books I loved, and her gagging fits baffled me. How could the writer have inflicted such a book upon the poor unwary world? It should be struck from shelves, torn to bits, possibly burned, and tossed into the Mariana Trench to be consumed by angry sharks. What a horrible person the writer must have been to write such a book.
The books were not pornographic, sexist, racist, irreligious, or profane. In fact, one of them was a Newberry Award winner, the prestigious prize given to the most highly acclaimed fiction for children.
I always felt sorry for the authors who were the subject of the rants. Whatever their flaws, I understand how much thought and courage is required to take an idea from a seed to maturity, despite struggles with under-confidence, uncertainty, and fears that the project could fail.
Recently I have struggled with insecurities of my own. I just had my newest novel proofread by someone who is not a fan of the fantasy genre. Though I only asked him to do line edits, he was liberal with offering his personal opinions, and he did not use tact.
In some places his only comment was “What??!”. He seemed particularly offended by passages where I had tried to be creative or expressed my personality.
I would not have had the novel proofread if I had thought my novel was perfect, but why the punctuation bombs? Should I feel hurt? Apologetic?
My experience has led me to wonder why responses to art are so vitriolic. In art there are no hard and fast rules. Depending upon the purpose of the artist, some principles generally work better than others, but deviating from the standard guidelines is sometimes essential.
That does not mean everyone will approve. In fact, some disapproval is inevitable if the audience is large. But why are responses to seemingly harmless artistic expressions sometimes so violent? If I dislike a book, I do not damn it to hell or attack the character of the writer. I simply stop reading it.
Do we inhabit a culture that encourages shaming artists? The television show “Project Runway” convinced me we do. The popular reality T.V. show always culminated in judges gushing over their chosen winner while ridiculing the “losing” fashion designer to the point that he would often end up in tears. I always hated that part, which is why I stopped watching the show.
The contestants had done their best, given their stringent time constraints. Seeing them crumple on stage reminded me of how much my own fears of ridicule had kept me from writing for many years when I could have been enjoying an activity I loved. The freedom to make mistakes is essential for artistic growth.
But if we do have a culture that shames its artists, why? Is it a gladiatorial blood sport? A way to project our personal insecurities onto others? What is it about human nature that yields such emotionally extreme responses to art, much of which has been built with care and the best intentions?
I recently heard an interesting explanation, which is that it is the nature of art to be loved or hated. There is no middle ground. To experience a book as “just okay” is really to hate it. People experience emotional blandness in their everyday lives. They do not want it in their art. They turn to music, movies, and books as a way to intensify the feeling of being alive.
If a book or movie fails to accomplish that for them, the audience can find some satisfaction in hating the art itself; that way, at least all is not lost. It was the worst. Movie. Ever.
Art is inherently polarizing. Its success depends on taste, which varies widely from person to person. Maybe that is why people are so dogmatic about their artistic preferences. Uncomfortable with subjectivity, they seek to settle the matter of what is good or bad once and for all.
But how does the climate of emotional extremes affect artists? For one thing, it discourages some people from even attempting it. In a choice between writing a novel and watching television, watching television is far safer. Moreover, television requires no effort and few will ridicule you for it.
Creative endeavors are emotionally risky. Courage is indispensable in a field where even the most competent and original artists are bound to be rejected, just as they are bound to be loved.
To avoid rejection an artist may be tempted to try to please everyone; to induce no nightmares and evoke no pain; to say nothing anyone is likely to disagree with; to avoid originality at all costs. That strategy produces the blandness of most Hollywood films, forgettable, predictable, not so much art as thin diversions.
Moreover, even bland, formulaic, and crowd-pleasing “hits” are not immune from criticism. To survive as an artist means embracing the truth that there is no universal acclaim and that the more original art is, the more polarizing it is likely to be.
Looking at the notes of my proofreader, I wonder: Is writing worth seeing the word “What?!?!” splattered next to an innocuous phrase where I had attempted to be original?
I would like to avoid getting the “What?!?!” response, but I remember my agonizing period of being blocked during a severe depression, in which I was so afraid of ridicule and criticism, I thought I would never be able to write again.
Comments like “What?!?!” were just the kind I feared, reminding me of when I was in grammar school and shamed for liking the wrong kind of music or wearing unpopular tennis shoes, or eating something “weird” at lunch. Gross. Shocking. What?!?!
As a bullied sixth grader, I handled the shaming by trying never to do anything to call attention to myself. I stopped talking at all. Writing was the place I went to for expressing who I really was, and it still is. I refuse to say only safe and predictable things so that I can avoid the electric shock of an inexplicably offended over-reaction.
Writing is my world, and there is comfort in knowing that there is no universal acclaim in a field that serves as a lightning rod for the emotions of love and hate.
If the nature of art is to stir up the most extreme feelings, aggressive treatment of artists is likely to continue. Therefore, it is up to the artist to realize that offending does not mean there is anything wrong; on the contrary, it means everything is going exactly as it should. In a field dominated by opposite emotional poles, the more artists are willing to be hated, the more likely it is they will be loved.
If you enjoyed this post you might like my other writing. Take a moment and sign up for my free starter library. Click here.