Some years ago, just after my first book was published, I met a friend I'd not seen for some time. The first thing he said to me, without even a pause, was “I didn’t like your book.” I hadn’t mentioned my book, and didn’t intend to, but for him it was clearly imperative that he let me know exactly how he felt about it.
I’ve been working on something new, and have almost completed it. Last week I went for a meeting with my agent and one of the agency’s interns to discuss progress. I had a heavy cold, and was weary from a very intense time in my day job as a headteacher. Earlier in the week I’d had a scuffle with some school inspectors and was hoping for a far more pleasant experience with my agent. I was pretty low, and having spent years on this new book, wondered just how much I was prepared to hear my work pulled apart before I snapped.
But my agent was lovely, and so was the intern, and there I was, happily having my book’s structure, and then its sentences, scrutinized and questioned. Their criticisms were so intelligent, and so accurate that I felt I was learning, and I knew what was being said made absolute sense. If only school inspections could be as pleasant and useful as this.
But I wonder what must it be like if you couldn’t take criticism? As a headteacher the rebukes come from every direction, in every form, and there’s nowhere to hide. I don’t like it, but I’m used to it. Is it the same for a writer? Do you grow a thick, leathery skin? Or, if you can’t take criticism, do you just give up?
Perhaps writing isn’t something to pursue if you’re too sensitive, but then don’t sensitive people make better writers? And when, and if, the book is published, and your work gets a more public scrutiny, then it’s open season and people may say and write horrible and unkind things. You have to be tough to put up with the criticism, but sensitive enough to write it in the first place.
Secretly, I think, we are all a lot tougher than we imagine. It isn’t easy getting published in the first place, so I suppose most of us have experienced plenty of rejections. But once the book is out there, and not everyone adores your work as much as you’d hoped, what do you do? How do you cope? Drink? Feign madness? Blame it on the kids? Or do you take it all to heart and shake your fist at the heavens and seek vengeance upon the universe?