Friday, February 29, 2008

Insert Idol Pun Here

One of the most painful aspects of watching American Idol—aside from the shameless exploitation of the deluded—is seeing how difficult it is for some of these young singers to handle criticism. When praised, some seem to inflate like puffer fish; when criticized, some grow defensive, even spiteful, making personal attacks against the judges. What they fail to realize is that their reaction to criticism is every bit as important as their performance, and maybe even more telling as to whether or not they will be able to survive the music business.

I can’t pretend to know what it’s like to be critiqued on television in front of millions of people, but I do know that listening only to praise and lashing out at criticism does very little to help an artist grow. When I was participating in writing workshops in college, there was a rule that when a student’s story was discussed in class, the author was not allowed to speak. We were not allowed to react to, defend, or explain anything. It was an enlightening exercise. Silence forced us to digest a comment instead of offering a knee-jerk defense. It reminded us that every reader’s opinion mattered and every story, no matter how wonderful, had room for improvement.

Learning how to handle criticism was probably the single greatest lesson I learned from those early workshops. Once you put your work out into the world, it’s open to all kinds of comments from readers and reviewers. There will be heady praise. There will be indifference. And at some point, all of us will have that terrible moment when someone writes something about us that is misunderstood, unflattering, or even malicious and there will be little, if anything, that we can do to defend ourselves. In all cases, I think we would do well to receive our critiques with calm detachment. Some praise will feel surprisingly inflated and unearned. On the other hand, even the most scathing review might hold a kernel of truth. If we orient ourselves toward constant improvement rather than the all-or-nothing goal of perfection, then we will not use criticism to gauge our worth as artists or people. Instead, we will use it as a tool to improve our work.

Yeah, I know—easier said than done.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Shelf Life

The New Yorker has a great cover this week. For those of you who haven’t had a look, it’s a nine panel comic tracing the brief life cycle of a book. Here’s the breakdown, panel by panel:

  1. Hardworking writer slaving at her desk, outside it’s snowing.
  2. Hardworking writer in publisher’s office, supportive editor by her side pitches manuscript.
  3. Publisher gives a thumbs up to the manuscript; through the window behind him, we see it’s spring.
  4. Book is being printed.
  5. Book is on display in bookstore.
  6. Man in shorts on park bench reads book while sipping a cool drink.
  7. Same man (this time in a sweater) carries cardboard box out to the sidewalk for garbage pickup; the book is on top. Leaves fall from the trees.
  8. As the man walks away, we see a hand grabbing the book from the box.
  9. In the final panel it is snowing again. We see that the person who grabbed the book was a homeless man, and he tosses the book onto a fire to keep warm.

When I sold my first adult novel, a friend of mine thought I had achieved immortality. “You wrote something that will be on the shelves for 100 years,” he said. I appreciated his support, but I couldn’t help but laugh a little to myself. The teen books I had written had a way of kicking around for a long time—due to the new batches of kids that were constantly growing up—but I knew that things were much different in the adult market. I gave my book three, maybe five years, at best.

Was I in for a surprise. Even with great reviews and moderate sales, both the hardcover and paperback each had a shelf life of one year. Why? Because bookstores have limited shelf space for the thousands of books that are published every year. Stores have to constantly make room for all the new stock coming in. So if you’re not on the bestseller list, it’s not financially advantageous for them to keep you around. The industry is so saturated that you have to make an impact right away—within the first month or two—to have any hope of sticking around.

Still, it doesn’t bother me too much that at this very minute my book is somewhere in the bottom of a remainder bin, or maybe even fuelling a barrel fire. There’s a huge stack of extra copies in my closet that I don’t know what to do with and considering the cost of heating oil, burning them may not be such a bad a idea. I’ve enjoyed the brief run, I’m grateful for the readers who have found the book, and like the bookstores with their short attention spans, I too, have moved on to the next thing.