In this blog I normally focus on formal rejections of creative work, like from literary agents or magazines. But we may sometimes experience the rejection of our creative work from a much more painful source: our loved ones.
A writer friend recently pointed me to an article in The Millions called “Who Will Buy Your Book?” by author Tom McAllister. He writes about struggling with disappointment when many of the people in his life didn’t support his work the way he’d expected. He describes the sense of betrayal and embarrassment he felt when people came up with all kinds of excuses when they didn’t show up for his readings or buy his books–alongside the understanding that he, himself, does the same thing all the time. I came away with the sense that he went through a process of accepting that this is just part of life as a writer. “Most of the writing life is disappointment,” he writes. “Publishing a book, which should be your most triumphant moment, is an anticlimax. There are no fireworks and no awards, no parades down Main Street. Many people close to you will disappoint you.”
His experience rings very true for me. I haven’t published three books yet and the ones I have published were not on a scale that would garner praise in The New Yorker and The Washington Post like his. But this disappointment thing starts long before you reach those kinds of achievements.
When I was a teenager, my friends would come hang out in my room and I would read them my work aloud. When I was 15, one friend even printed out the manuscript of my second novel, The Problem with Princes, so we could bring it along on a 3-day school trip, and I read it to them on the bus:
We were kids; we had that kind of time. And my friends seemed to enjoy it.
As an adult, I found it was much, much harder to get my friends to read and comment on my work.
Friends who had loved my previous novels begged me to send them the manuscript of By Light of Hidden Candles, and I’d say 1 in 5 actually ended up reading it within a reasonable time frame, even after occasional reminders. At first, my self-doubt demons were all over this. “Your book is so boring and so bad it can’t even hold the attention of the friends who begged you to read it!!!” I felt disappointed and annoyed at these friends for expressing interest in the first place.
But eventually I came to realize that it had nothing to do with how much they wanted to read it or how good it was. People just suck at following through on stuff they don’t have to do, and many people–myself included–prefer to read on dead trees. Reading a novel in the form of a Word document is awkward and annoying. I eventually learned to convert it into a MOBI to send to people’s e-readers and phones, and this helped a bit, but not a lot.
A few months ago I encountered a thread on a writer’s group on Facebook about beta-readers, and discovered that my experience was far from rare. Even very successful, agented authors bemoaned their friends’ lack of response after begging them to read their manuscripts. I felt so relieved!
The resounding conclusion in the thread was that the majority of people who offer to read or review your work aren’t going to do it.
In my experience this is true even with other writers, even with people who explicitly state that they know how delicate the situation is, even with people who give you a deadline. It’s just human nature. I think deadlines are a good idea, not so much because they increase the likelihood of the beta-reader coming through as because they give you a specific date beyond which to give up and move on.
“It Wasn’t for Them”
When the early reviews for By Light of Hidden Candles started coming through, I issued instructions to my publisher not to bring my attention to the negative ones. While I think it’s important to listen to constructive criticism when you can, negative reviews don’t generally meet my criteria for constructive criticism. Reviews aren’t written for the benefit of the author. They’re for the benefit other readers. Moreover, once a book is published, it’s not like you can revise it and improve it thanks to people’s comments. So I preferred to spare myself and asked friends to point out only reviews they thought I would especially enjoy.
The first glowing reviews made me absolutely elated, and the negative ones that did slip through hurt.
But then I began to notice a pattern with the negative reviews. By and large, they were written by people who just didn’t “get it”, or who were disappointed when they discovered that the book was something different from what they’d been expecting.
For example, someone complained that I used the word inshallah in a dialogue between a Jewish Moroccan woman and her granddaughter, claiming that “as a rabbi’s wife” I should know “the non-Jewish origins of this word.” (For the record: it’s not “Jewish” or “non-Jewish,” it’s a word in Arabic, which Arabic-speaking Jews, such as the ones living in Morocco, have been using for as long as Muslims have.) Here I’d been terrified that historians were going to call me out on actual historical mistakes, and along comes someone who, in their own ignorance, called me out on a completely accurate fact!
So that was pretty easy to shrug off. But then there were people who found the dialogue too “silly” or the level of the book too “immature.” These people were clearly expecting adult literary fiction, rather than young adult. In their defense, the book sort of straddles the border between those two genres, which, I think, is one of the reasons I never found an agent for it. Others were annoyed by the religious aspects, while others were scandalized by it not being religious enough. Some felt it was too sympathetic to Christians, while others felt it was too biased in favor of Judaism.
All this helped me internalize something about Item #3 on the Creative Resilience Manifesto: “Not everyone is going to share that belief [that my work is worthy], but the only opinion that really matters is my own.”
Sometimes negative responses, or lack of response, is simply a matter of mismatched tastes or expectations.
These reviews didn’t mean that my book sucks. Remember my post “But What If I Actually Suck?” There’s no such thing as art that sucks. There’s art that resonates and art that doesn’t resonate–and whether it does or it doesn’t completely depends on the consumer. My book didn’t resonate with these people. It wasn’t for them. That’s all these reviews meant.
The Core Fan Club
“I’ve learned to cherish those friends and family members who are always there, or even sometimes there,” writes Tom McAllister. “It takes real sacrifice on their part to support this weird thing I do.”
I am blessed to have a number of people in my life who always celebrate my writing. These people–maybe 15 friends and family members–form my “core fan club”: the people I know I can always count on to champion my writing in any way they can. This can mean a variety of things, from offering critique to buying my books, from promoting my stuff among their friends and colleagues to providing moral support, or all of the above and more.
Beyond this group, I’ve learned not to have any expectations. And even within the “core fan club,” I know there are certain things I can’t expect from certain people. So I am grateful for whatever support they can give me, and don’t assign any negative meaning to an inability or unwillingness to do more.
Tom McAllister writes: “For most of these people, the only appealing aspect of the book is that your name is on the cover. Maybe they’re not readers. Maybe they like gritty mysteries and you’re writing literary fiction about a divorced Brooklyn couple. Maybe they like reading but don’t have time, due to career, kids, community activism, or something else.” Maybe they do have the time but don’t have the emotional energy. Maybe they have other priorities. Maybe they don’t connect to your style or your topics. There are a bajillion reasons why they may not be responding to your work that have nothing to do with its quality or how much these people value it (or you).
“Relative to the amount of time and anxiety you devote to the project, you’re really not asking for much,” Tom McAllister writes. “But it’s important to remember: nobody in the world will ever care about your book as much as you do. Very few will ever understand exactly what it means to you. “
I have a “designated byline shelf” in my living room where I line up my books and the magazines and anthologies where I’ve had stories, articles, and poems published. To me, those piles of paper have deep and intense meaning; they symbolize something that stands at the center of my life, years and years of work and investment and processing and daring greatly and enduring failure and falling and picking myself back up. I like to pause next to that shelf and run my finger across the spines, letting myself take pride in my accomplishments.
To other people, though, they’re just a couple modest volumes among scores, maybe even hundreds, of other (probably better) books on their shelves.
In some cases, people who asked for the manuscript and never read it came through once the book was in print. In many other cases, they didn’t, and still haven’t bought a copy. I really don’t hold this against them. I have friends whose books I really do want to buy and read, but I still haven’t. I could give you a billion explanations–tight budget, new books feel like a selfish luxury since I’m the only one in the house who can enjoy them (my husband has chronic eye pain and can’t read small print, and my kids are little), hard to talk myself into it when the book’s not right there in front of me and I have to order online, etc. etc. etc., but at the end of the day, these are excuses and if it were important enough to me, I would have bought them right away. The fact is that I have other priorities. And I don’t think I need to be ashamed of that–and neither do the friends of mine who haven’t bought or read my books.
Even us artists need to have lives and identities beyond our art. I elaborated on that in this post.
Here’s what I’m saying in a nutshell:
- If you’re an author who has sent your book to some friends as beta-readers, expect that most of them will never actually read it. This is the way of the world. Try not to take it personally.
- Many of your friends and family won’t support your art in the way you would have liked. This is not because you suck or because they don’t care about you. There are a billion other possible reasons. Make generous assumptions. (See my post about fantasy for more about the power of generous assumptions.)
- Find and cherish your “core fan club” and consider the rest a bonus.
- If you do find yourself let down by the people around you, remember Creative Resilience Manifesto item #7: I invite myself to feel everything. It’s okay to feel anger or sadness that people aren’t showing up for you the way you want them to. Give yourself space to process that in whatever way you need. Just remember that you’re not alone; even successful authors like Tom McAllister have felt this way.
I’m interested to hear about your experiences with this–have you ever been disappointed by people in your life you’d been expecting to support you? How have you coped with it? Tell me in the comments!