In October 2009, I received my first one-star review. The rating didn’t bother me much, because the reviewer’s other one-star reads included two of my favorite books plus an Oprah club pick. But a particular line in the text of the review haunted me for nearly three years: “The writing was so unsophisticated.”
After I read that line, it hardly registered when other strangers described my book with words like “compelling”, “important”, “heart-wrenching”, and “superbly written”, because my brain kept going back to so unsophisticated. I had never in my life strived to be sophisticated–I’m not even sure what it means–but suddenly it became the measure by which I judged every passage I wrote.
I’ve analyzed that person’s comments again and again. She’s not a professional reviewer, but I’ve imagined her reading thousands of books in her lifetime and held her up as an expert in separating the real writers from the hacks. I’ve respected her for being the most insightful person who has ever read my book. When wise folks have said that it’s just one opinion, I’ve thought yes, but it’s the one opinion that counts. Why? Because I have a perseveration disorder and need a frontal lobotomy. Also because she is the one who saw my secret fear, the truth I’ve been trying to hide. The rest of them were fooled, but she was perceptive enough to know that I’m just a small town girl faking it in the big city.
Then I read this post on perspective by Jim Devitt, and I had an epiphany. The epiphany may also have involved bright lights, pointy heads, and huge almond-shaped eyes, but the details are a little fuzzy. In any case, I finally realized that not only have I been insulting all other readers whose opinions are equally valid, but also I’ve been living by a story in my head that might not even be true, and doesn’t matter anyway. To publish something, we have to put ourselves in the path of critique, and it’s good to take any value we can from it–but once a critique has served its purpose, it needs to be neutralized. I don’t know why it took me so long to figure this out, but now I see that as a writer, I have the power to change the story in my head. After all, making up new stories is what we do.
The reviewer in question is probably a perfectly nice lady, so this is nothing personal, no more than was her review. I just need to make her specter into something that doesn’t induce paralysis. Some people imagine their critics naked, but for me, that’s going to spark a whole new disorder. So instead, I have imagined the following.
“The writing in this book is so unsophisticated.” The “so” came out like a moo from a cow that stretched down her pointy nose and got stuck under the half-glasses perched on the tip. “Maybe you should write for teenagers.” She said teenagers like it was something to be scooped from a litter box and carried out between two fingers to the trash barrel in the middle of the night.
She typed her comments into the computer then closed the book and set it on the accent table next to the wing-back chair . She drew her silk shawl across her shoulders and pulled her black turtleneck closer to her ears. The long, dark sleeves offset her flawless French manicure, a style orchestrated to make anyone within sight feel dumpy and inadequate. She crossed her legs and placed one hand over the other on top of her knee, as though waiting for the butler to bring cognac.
The doorknob turned, but instead of the butler, in burst three grubby children.
“Mommy, is your time-out over? Billy just puked in the ficus.”
“Only because I ate four donuts. Daddy said I could.”
“He told you not to tell.”
She sighed and ushered the children out the door. Then she took off her half-glasses and slid them into their case, carefully removed her silk shawl and folded it away in the bureau, and snapped off her fake nails and poured them into a candy dish on the nightstand.
The book she had just dismissed landed on a pile in the corner with 47 others she had scorned that year. As she shut off the computer, a file flickered closed in the background–the file that held her half-written novel that she had never dared to finish, because it was so unsophisticated.