In the winter of 1989, thanks to the generosity of my grandparents, I went to France to study as an exchange student. It was especially thrilling because two of my dearest high school friends were also part of the exchange program. And so it was that we kids from Maine were turned loose upon the unsuspecting French.
Dressed in black (it was the 80s, after all) we ran wild around Paris with our Frenchie counterparts, smoking Dunhill cigarettes and ordering les rhums cocas (We could ask for rum and cokes! In French! How chic were we?). We were delighted to discover that though we were only sixteen, the worldly Parisians had absolutely no qualms about serving us hooch. It’s a wonderful country.
The trip was not entirely a bacchanalia. We attended classes at the Lycée Corneille (the local high school) outside Paris with our French hosts. We visited historical sites, grand chateaux, cathedrals, and museums aplenty. We even saw the movie Dead Ringers (Faux Semblants) in French, which was a disturbing experience that haunts me to this day. It was a movie about twin diabolical surgeons, and truly scary, especially since I didn’t know what the heck was going on through 90% of the movie.
One day, I found myself in the Centre George Pompidou, the modern art museum, with my friend. We’ll call him Robert Smith, as back then my friend bore more than a passing resemblance to the lead singer of those masters of moody 80s spookiness, The Cure.
Following an afternoon of viewing many amazing examples of painting and sculpture, we stood at last in front of a blue monochrome canvas. Literally, it was a big blue rectangle, like an oversized paint chip. Robert Smith and I gazed at it in silence.
“Well that’s dumb,” I said finally. I was a paragon of artistic sensitivity and sophistication.
“Yeah,” said Robert Smith. “Wait, what?”
“It’s dumb,” I said again. “It’s, like, it’s just blue.” Eloquence, thy name is Leigh!
Robert Smith stared at me in horror. “Dumb?” he asked, incredulous. “Is that all you have to say? ‘It’s dumb?’ That’s dumb.”
And of course, Robert Smith was right. What did I know about art, beyond discerning what I, personally, did or didn’t like? Clearly, I was missing something here, some mystery and message within the blue painting that was winging right over my blockhead. Connoisseurs and curators who knew much more about art than me had deemed this painting a masterpiece worthy of exhibition in France’s premier modern art museum. Right then, I knew I was out of my depth.
I’ve thought about this episode on and off over the years, and each time I arrive at this axiom: Human experience is subjective. Whether it’s art, music, movies or literature, one person’s masterpiece is another person’s dud. No one experiences anything in the same way; even our experience of everyday events is different from someone else’s. “Hey, it’s raining! I love the rain!” vs. “Ugh, what a dreary day.”
Does that mean the blue monochrome (aka The Giant Blue Paint Chip) was bad? Was it not art? Was it devoid of meaning and import? Mais non.
Does it mean that personally, TGBPC did nothing for me? Ah, oui.
My novel is out with beta readers right now. I love my beta readers, those “test” readers who slog through the early incarnation of the story. Their generosity in taking the time to read my book and offer feedback is an enormous gift to me. And they are uniquely positioned: they can see the book in ways I, the author, cannot.
I wonder what their feedback will be like. Beyond that, I wonder, should this book have the good fortune to be published, what reader feedback will be like. I think of the many book reviews I’ve read, where often a story is lauded by some and loathed by others. A reader’s perspective on any story, like everything else, is a subjective experience.
I’ll give you another example from my own life, but please, please don’t hate me.
I didn’t like Harry Potter.
Ouch! Who threw that rock? Was that you?
Where was I? Oh, yes. I received the Harry Potter series as a gift, and I was beyond excited about it. 1) I anticipated a long stretch of reading which is something I get gooey over, 2) the genre was ostensibly close to my heart, and 3) millions of other readers love these books, so surely I would, too. N’est-ce pas?
I made it about halfway through The Sorcerer’s Stone and then put it away wondering what was wrong with me. The writing? Superb and brilliant. The story? Clever and expertly crafted. The characters? Unique and richly drawn. There is nothing in the book I can point to and say “This is what I didn’t like about it.” From a distance, I smiled and congratulated J.K. Rowling on her storytelling prowess. But that was the problem. It felt distant. I didn’t connect. In short, I just didn’t love it.
If I had been the literary agent (ha ha) in receipt of J.K. Rowling’s query, and if loving the book was the basis on which I made my decision, I probably would have passed. And then I would have had to go into exile to escape the shame and snide comments from the masses about what a clueless agent I am. (This is why no way, no how, should I be a literary agent).
All of this is to say, don’t give up on your story (or painting, or musical composition, or anything you care about) because some people (cretins like me) don’t like it. Nothing of any value will ever please everyone. It’s a lesson I am still learning.
I encourage you (and me!) to listen carefully to helpful feedback, even helpful criticism, always with gratitude and openness. Someone cares enough about you and the story to tell you what they think, and that’s a gift. Let it sit. Let it marinate. If something within you thinks they may be onto something, start thinking about how you can make your book better.
But remember, too, the subjectivity of the reader’s experience. Ultimately, you’ve got to listen to yourself and what you know about your story. As science fiction author Alfred Bester said, “The book is the boss.” Listen to what the book is telling you. Take your time. Ultimately, in the context of the feedback you receive, the story will tell you what it needs (and what it doesn’t). You’ll know when to make changes based on reader critique, and when to stick to your guns.
J.K. Rowling is a genius, talented, mega-bestselling author who has written a series of books that ensorcelled the hearts and minds of a gajillion people. Should she care that they didn’t turn me on? Uh, no.
If the famous French painter who created the blue monochrome had listened to people like me, he would not have pursued his dream of making art, and his painting would not now be hanging in the Centre Pompidou in Paris. That would be tragic for the many, many people who look at that piece and are moved, inspired or provoked in some important way.
And that, sans doute, would be dumb.
How do you put critique in perspective? Do you agree quality is in the eye of the beholder? Do you confess to being unmoved by “masterpieces” others adore? Come on…spill it!
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