A Critique of Criticism (for anyone who’s ever had a bad review)

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On January 29th 1968. the New York Times carried a review of an album by an up and coming musician. Unfortunately for the aspiring artist it was not a positive one. ‘Alienated Young Man Creates Some Sad Music’ ran the headline, and the article beneath went on to damn its subject with the faintest of faint praise.

Now, I have no idea how you feel about Leonard Cohen. Maybe, like the reviewer, you regard him as a tuneless miserabilist whose words carried him further than his talent should have allowed. Or, like me, you’re one of many millions of listeners who love to lose themselves in the cigarettes and angst of his unmistakable baritone. Either way, what is in no doubt is that there is a long list of now feted artists who were once the subject of devastating reviews.

There is a long list of now feted artists who were once the subject of devastating reviews.

When Fred Astaire, maybe the most influential dancer to have graced the silver screen, auditioned for MGM, his performance was annihilated in just nine words: ‘Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.’

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick now rides high on many of those greatest books of all time lists and has shifted over 25 million copies. But when Melville died in 1891, some 40 years after the initial publication date, sales amounted to a pitiful 3,715. Theodor Geisel was heading home to burn the manuscript of his first book, having been brutally rejected by 27 publishers, when he was stopped by an acquaintance who had a contact in publishing. Over 60 books later, Dr Seuss as he is better known, recalled, ‘If I’d been going down the other side of Madison Avenue, I’d be in the dry cleaning business today’. Vincent Van Gogh produced over 2000 artworks during his lifetime of which he sold just two.

The list of reviewers, critics, publishers, galleries, awards juries and others who got it wrong is very long indeed.

It’s fun to look back at these errors of judgement. There is a delicious schadenfreude when we think of the executive at Decca records who rejected the Beatles because ‘there is no future in guitar music’, or one of those 12 publishers who famously told Joanne Rowling that maybe writing wasn’t her thing.

Yet there’s a deeper point here too. When we make creative work we open ourselves up and we become vulnerable. We reach deep inside to share a previously concealed truth. And because that truth has until now lain hidden we are, as curious and sociable creatures, keen to know how our fellow human beings will react.

Will our work speak to them? Will they be moved too? Will their response reward the hours of heartache and effort which have gone into painting the image, writing the story, composing the tune?

Or will they trample on our creative endeavours, or, worse still, ignore them?

I don’t think one can ever escape this impulse. After all, what is the point in bringing the work into the world unless it is to be experienced by others? If someone claims to be entirely oblivious to criticism then, frankly, they’re either a sociopath or a liar.

If someone claims to be entirely oblivious to criticism then, frankly, they’re either a sociopath or a liar.

Yet even if we can’t stop ourselves from listening to others’ opinions, we can control the extent to which we are influenced by them. We can look back at the inglorious history of criticism and see how, again and again, often during periods of artistic innovation, those afforded positions of influence got it wrong.

Had Leonard Cohen, JK Rowling, Van Gogh, Fred Astaire or The Beatles accepted the damning opinions above, all our cultural lives would be immeasurably poorer.

Opinions are only ever opinions. They are not fact. And this works both ways. Just as we should avoid affording negative criticism too much sway over our creative process, so too should we be wary of atrophying in the puffed up complacency baubles and plaudits can bring.

We have, as best as we can, to insulate the creative act from any thought of how our work will live in the world once it is made.

A little while back I was reading an article by George Saunders about the writing of his Booker prize winning novel ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’. The novel, based on the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, describes a kind of netherworld or ‘bardo’ where spirits reside, and is highly experimental in form. Saunders tells how, about a third of the way through writing the book, feeling daunted by his untested techniques, he wrote to a novelist friend saying it was 'either the best thing I’d ever written or a real career ender’. His friend replied with great wisdom, ‘Don’t forget. It could be both.’

Thanks for reading this article. To discover more about my workshops, webinars, and podcast on the creative process visit my website.


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