The other day, I happened upon a negative comment about a friend’s book. It wasn’t really a terrible comment, truth be told. It was just sort of a nebulous, wishy-washy dismissal. Nothing that would send you (or me) to the bathroom for a bottle of sleeping pills, but I couldn’t help but to wince for my friend and hope that she wouldn’t come across it, too. (I would have warned her off, but let’s face it — morbid curiosity would have compelled her to look eventually. Hell, I would have, were the positions reversed.)
This did cause me to muse, however, on the notion that artists do not or should not care what other people think of their work. I’m not quite sure where this idea came from or when it started. I suppose on the surface it seems reasonable and maybe even self-evident. Writers, musicians, actors — all those who work under the heading of “artist” are supposed to be above this sort of thing. It’s the WORK that is supposed to matter. If some guy on the ‘net doesn’t like my book, why should I care? I create ART! The opinions of the masses aren’t supposed to matter to me. I am supposed to exist on some transcendent plane, some apotheotic realm where I am so consumed with empyreal issues that I don’t have time for the fleeting thoughts of mortals.
I mean, very few people create art in a vacuum. Wait, let’s back up. That’s not really true. A lot of people actually do create art in something approximating a vacuum, but very few of them create it FOR a vacuum. You’ve got Emily Dickinson, but that’s the only one that jumps to mind immediately. Most people who create art do it in a solitary fashion, but for the purpose of exposing it to the world, and exposing the world to it. That’s the whole PURPOSE of art. If you stuff your poems in the sock drawer, Emily, you’ve amused and enlightened yourself and that’s it. If art is holding a mirror up to reality, then what good is it to shove that mirror under your bed, where no one will ever see it?
So we create art specifically so that other people will see. We want them to see it. And we want them to have a reaction because — again — otherwise what’s the point? If you go to all that trouble to hold up that big, heavy mirror and then haul it outside and no one notices or cares, then what have you accomplished?
So we make art to show to others in order to evoke a reaction. Once you’re that far down the road of sharing with the world, you can’t HELP but to feel the impact (good and bad) of people’s comments and criticisms.
Because let me tell you something…
Da Vinci and Michelangelo cared what people thought of their work. They HAD to. It was their livelihood. Shakespeare sure as hell cared. Dickens had to keep fans coming back for each new installment, just like a soap opera. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle brought Holmes back from the dead just to shut up the rabid readership. Poe cared to the point that he drank himself and drugged himself to death because no one could recognize his genius. John Milton…
Well, OK. He probably didn’t care. At least, not when it came to Paradise Lost. Exception proves the rule and all that.
Even poor old Emily Dickinson cared. She cared so much that she freaked out at the idea that people might not like her work or might mock it, so she stuffed it away and we all got to read it after her death, poor thing.
What do we take away from this? Well, that writers not only do care, but also should care. That doesn’t mean that we let our fears and concerns prevent us from tackling certain issues. Rather, it means that the (perceived, anticipated) reaction of the reader can act as a goad, compelling us to produce our very best work. Hell, it can compel us to produce at all! Many friends of mine have quoted to me that old writer’s complaint: “I hate to write; I love having written.”
I would modify that to “I hate to write; I love having written; I adore being read.”
And being read brings with it all of Hamlet’s slings and arrows, all the outrageous fortune. It’s an occupational hazard. It’s a pain in the ass. But never, ever pretend it doesn’t matter. I don’t buy it.