Full disclosure: This post originally appeared here in TKZ on July 23, 2010, with the title, “Skin Like Leather.” I bring it back here today for two reasons: 1) It’s still relevant; and 2) I’m crashing on a deadline.
We always tell up-and-comers that they’ve got to have a thick skin if they’re ever going to break into the publishing business. As the rejections pile up, it’s hard not to lose faith in your own abilities. When the news finally turns good, and an agent wants to see the manuscript, and later when an editor decides to buy it, you feel vindicated. Ha-ha and neener-neener, you think. Clearly all those rejecters were wrong.
What clearer affirmation of talent can there be than a publishing contract, right? If you’re not careful, you might start rubbing aloe on that leather-tough skin, thinking that it’s time to shed the bullet-proof coating.
Oh, that it were true.
I won the 2010 award at Thriller Fest for the Worst Review Ever, for an opinion of Nathan’s Run that appeared in an upstate New York newspaper: “The glue boogers in the binding were more captivating than Gilstrap’s torpid prose.” That it followed dozens of major market rave reviews from around the world softened the blow to the point that I laughed out loud when I read it at the time. Now I treasure my award, which is a lovely wooden box containing a fossilized dinosaur turd. All in good fun.
As I write this, I am again in the early stages of a new book launch (Hostage Zero, 19 days straight in the Top 30 in Amazon’s Kindle store), blessed with a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. I’m very proud of the book. Frankly, I think it’s my best work, but then I always think that when a new book comes out.
I almost took out the aloe again. Not so fast.
This is the age of the amateur Internet review, where the opinions of casual readers wield influence equal to that of professional critics. Among many very positive reviews, one fellow calls my book “surprisingly decent.” Another expresses surprise that as a “second tier suspense writer” I have had such a long career. I have been chastised for leading with my left-wing politics, and I’ve been chastised for leading with my right-wing politics. One reviewer chastises me for coming off as stupid because I can’t seem to keep my own politics straight.
Interestingly, several reviewers have accused me in an online forum of writing my own raves, one of them going so far as to praise my ability to change my writing style to accommodate my various fictional identities. (For the record, I’ve never done such a thing.)
God bless them all. Once the book is written and I’ve launched it out to the world, it belongs more to the reader than it does to me. It’s the nature of art that perception trumps intent. A review is a review, after all, and since the major media markets have decided that books are no longer worthy of ink and newsprint, I’m just happy that someone’s paying attention.
The need for thick skin doesn’t end at the impersonal review, however.
Nine times out of ten, people are wonderfully supportive of me and my work. With the exception of certain engineered opportunities—book signings, etc.—I have little desire to be the star of a social setting. I’d much rather discuss current events than the mechanics of writing. Among these friends, the launch of a new book warrants a congratulations and a couple of signed books and that’s about it.
Then there’s the remaining one out of ten who just sort of baffle me. Consider those among my relatives who ostentatiously don’t read my books (even though I think they do), yet ask me to autograph editions for their friends. A day-job colleague of mine went out of his way to list the stores he’d visited where none of my books were in stock, and another rarely missed a public opportunity to express shock that my books do as well as they do. What am I supposed to say in response to such things? It seems sometimes that people go out of their way to be hurtful.
Over the years, I’ve come to understand that the rudeness—whether by acts of omission or commission—is rarely intended to be hurtful. The family stuff is weirder than the collegial stuff, but I’ve decided that artistic success—even when it’s second tier—makes some people feel both empowered and uncomfortable. The public nature of book writing empowers people to criticize, while public success—and the minor celebrity that comes with it—can upset the balance of an insecure relationship.
One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned over the past 25 years toiling as a scribe is to respond thusly to even the most scathing review: Thank you for reading my work and taking the time to comment.
This: “Once the book is written and I’ve launched it out to the world, it belongs more to the reader than it does to me.”
I remind myself of the countless books I’ve read that have received rave reviews that simply didn’t work for me. It may sting, but not everyone loves all of our babies.
I consider my first one-star review a badge of honor. Now I know I’ve arrived. 😉
“Thank you for reading my work and taking the time to comment” is the best possible answer. Wise words, John.
Thank you, Mr. Gilstrap. Sage advice for all of us newbies who are putting the first timid toe over the line of the publishing marathon. Starting gun is poised to crack.
Does raising an inordinate number of children (7) and helping with an obscene number of g-children (23) count for developing a thick hide? Good grief! I make myself sound so old, but, I swear I just retired last year. Really.
It’s not the same, though. My twenty-something grandkids can roll their eyes at their 65 year old gramma and it slides off my back. But a reviewer whose eyebrow might twitch threatens to send me into a tailspin. One reader once asked me why I can’t just tell the truth…
Leather skin might not be so bad after all…for someone who lies for a living. 🙂
Thank you for this post. The first book I ever wrote was published by the first person I sent it to, an editor at Berkeley. The same editor declined my second book (in a different genre) but gave me a list of agents she trusted. The first one I queried wrote such a hateful dismissal I felt like I’d been slapped. Although I’ve written several more books, I’ve not had the courage to send anything out. At least, not until I stumbled on this blog and, after reading it for months, found the courage to submit a first page for critique. Knowing that truly talented and successful writers such as all of you on this blog can laugh in the face of negativity makes me realize I’ve been ridiculous. We’re writers because we love to write, right? Because we have so many stories inside us, we must let them pour out. So, who cares what people say! Right? ?
I love the story of that review & your ITW award. Who wouldn’t want a fossilized dinosaur turd…in a BOX, for cryin’ out loud? Thanks for sharing this iconic post. Good fortune with your deadline.
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