Sunday Quote: Wallach on Critics as Hangmen

“Having the critics praise you is like having the hangman say you've got a pretty neck”
- Eli Wallach

While digging up epigraphs for a book I'm writing (working title: Hangman's Bayou), I came across this fabulous quote and immediately grokked it. Not that I don't love praise. I wag like a whipped puppy. But there's a huge danger in assigning any one critic, whether it be a reviewer, judge, agent, editor, or even a reader, too much importance.

If you allow others to be the only worthwhile judges of your work, you give away your power, your own sense of what resonates. And you risk falling victim to any negative word that comes your way.

I learned a lot about this while working with one particular agent. At my request (masochist that I am), I asked her to send me copies of rejections, but she would only send them in batches. When I put three to five together, I could see the reasons stated for the rejections (sometimes on work that ultimately sold to an editor who loved it, was well reviewed, and later won awards) were almost always contradictory. If I'd received each rejection right away, I might've been tempted to keep going back and revising -- likely eviscerating the raw story magic that eventually found its audience.

The best policy is to take the good and bad with a grain of salt. Remember it's not your manuscript's job to please every audience, but to find its particular fans. If you must read your reviews (I admit, I have to) try looking for a preponderance of opinion about your strengths and/or weaknesses rather than paying too much attention to the individual judgment.

So how do you handle good reviews and cope with bad ones?


Joni Rodgers said…
How do I handle: hefty grain of salt.

And I grok "grokking".
jfrank14 said…
Well, mostly I just long to be at the point where I get reviews. Good, bad, and ugly, I look forward to 'em all! I know, FLW, right?

But I agree. Rejections--which at this point I've received from agents and, once signed, editors--tend to be contradictory. One loves the plot but hates the characters, and vice versa, to put it in crude terms. The craft is so subjective that I've come to realize there is no right way.

At the same time, my work has been so much improved by good, critical reads, I wouldn't want to fall prey to the belief that if it pleases me, it must rock! I think it comes down to that little niggly sense we all have inside of us, and when we feel it get tickled, we know someone is saying something we'd better pay attention to.

Is there a word as good as grok for that sense?
Thanks for sharing. I think the word you may be looking for is resonance. What a criticism resonates to your bones, you'll know it's something to do. If it just doesn't make sense (even after you've taken time to wrestle your ego out of the way) then leave it be.
Others' opinions can only help me, because they are never about "me". Rather, they are about the work (or work-in-progress).

Sometimes I let criticism sit for a while before I weight it against my "Wendyfeeling" (which tells me whether it's on-target or not.)

Sometimes I make changes in response to the criticism and then take a second look, leading to "Hmm, it IS better" or "Nope, I was right on the first time."

With hope, Wendy
jennymilch said…
Jfrank is now posting as Jennymilch!

Colleen, I do like resonance for it. I think that's exactly it. (But I may use Wendyfeeling, too, betimes...)

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