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11: November 3, 2008

My Baby

I doubt that there has ever been a writer—or artist, athlete, politician, chef, babysitter, dictator, paper boy, televangelist or what-have-you—more sensitive to criticism than I am.

I’m speaking specifically of the short reviews of my first book that have appeared on the various international Amazon sites, on Barnes & Noble and so on. Nothing in my experience has prepared me to deal with the jolt of clicking a link and abruptly discovering that I’m selfish / vile / puerile and my prose is impenetrable / unfunny / vulgar. Whenever a new pan happens to cross my line of sight, it lays me out flat for at least a week.

In a way, it’s a worse feeling than the death of a dear friend or family member, probably because of the sense that the criticism, unlike the death, could have been avoided: If only I’d written the book more carefully; if only I’d never written it at all; if only I’d never been born; if only amino acids had never appeared on this planet to form the proteins and enzymes that would function as the building blocks for intelligent life and for the POD publishing firms that allow talentless slime like me to slither out of the primordial ooze and embarrass ourselves in print in the first place.

A scathing review is like one of those devastating December colds that slams into you without warning one day and fades away only gradually, and in between reminds you of its presence with every stuttering breath, day and night. Talking about it—writing a blog about it, for that matter—scarcely helps, nor do any of the other tried and true panaceas: prayer, exercise, alcohol. Even Japanese porn leaves me unmoved, and that’s saying something. By the third day of wallowing in this funk, I retain only dim memories of what it felt like to smile or enjoy a meal or smell a flower or spring a boner. Only time can heal this type of wound, always leaving behind another jagged new psychic scar.

Probably the only good effect of being criticized is that it has made me more generous in handing down my own judgments, sometimes to a fault. At the end of Spiderman 3, for example, I said something to Mrs. Muggins along the lines of “Well, that seemed a tad overlong to me, but it had its moments.” The pre-published, pre-roasted me would have been notably brusquer. Likewise, Isiah Thomas was merely unlucky during his term as GM of the New York Knicks; some of the tunes on Paris Hilton’s album are quite bouncy; I’m sure President Bush and Vice President Cheney have always meant well. Every face I see on Hot Or Not rates at least a nine. Like I said: to a fault.

And you know who had a tough childhood? Satan.

I wish I weren’t constructed this way. I wish I could shrug off criticism, or confront it with explosive, cathartic, Bill Clinton-esque fury. Instead, my reaction upon reading somewhere that I’m filthier than toenail scum is: My God—she’s right.

I am selfish / vile / puerile! My prose is impenetrable / unfunny / vulgar! Why, oh why did I not see that? Why did I have to go through the whole tedious rigmarole of writing the book and getting it published to have my utter incompetence made plain to me?

Of course, there are good reviews as well, and these do have the expected palliative effect. Yes, yes, of course I’m innovative / underappreciated / witty. I knew that, I muse as I spring from my chair, suddenly intent upon impregnating the first twenty ovulating females that I encounter, regardless of appearance or species.

But that effect doesn’t linger the way the effect of a negative review lingers.

In the end, I keep bouncing back because, well, I just have to. As the careful reader of this blog will note--and that definite article is a deliberate choice; I begin to suspect that said Careful Reader is as unique and specific as the sun or the moon--I have insisted that I write books only for myself, not for friends, foes, or critics of either stripe. And one reason I feel compelled to write and publish books, I suppose, is that it’s the closest experience to motherhood that a man can ever have. There’s the joy and the miracle of conception, then the long gestation period. Finally, the agonizing passage of the offspring through the birth canal (which is why I stick with paperbacks, not hardcovers). And then the depression sets in, that awful feeling of separation and loss of control.

You send your issue out into the world looking so frail and vulnerable, and all you can think about is all the awful things that may befall it. And when somebody picks on it, your natural inclination is to defend it to the death.

But I long ago vowed not to be that kind of mommy to my books—not one of these notorious helicopter parents one reads about. I try to keep up on how it’s faring out there in the cruel world (even though it never calls), but draw the line at active interference. I’ve given my book life and I’ve raised it up and instilled my values--such as they are--in it, and I’ve sent it out into the world; but now it has to find its own way, make its own friends.

To an extent, it has. I’ve noticed with pleasure that some of the cruder criticisms on websites have inspired thoughtful commenters (something I had assumed to be an oxymoron) to challenge them. Yes! My baby is making friends. It has fallen in with the “right crowd.”

Still, as wonderful as the overall experience of being a writer has been, the criticism aspect of it never gets any easier. I’ve been getting clobbered in almost Palinesque proportions of late, but I suppose this is in part an inevitable backlash against the early, mostly upbeat reviews. And the good thing about backlash, I suppose, is that you can only experience it after praise. Otherwise, it’s not backlash. It’s just, well, lash.

There’s always the hope that the backlash with inspire a reverse-backlash of its own. Not that I’m trying to start anything here, my dear, considerate readers. I mean, we could do that; I know how it could be done; but as President Nixon famously said to the hidden microphone, it would be wrong