Interpretation and criticism often wear the same hat, but unlike interpretation, which is relatively benign, criticisms and rejections can be devastating. Since I am a writer myself, subject to rejection and the barbs of critics as are many of you, an important book in my library is called Rotten Reviews & Rejections, edited by Bill Henderson and Andre Bernard and published by Pushcart Press in 1998. It presents critical, if not downright nasty, quotes from reviews and publishers’ rejections of now classic works. It is solace for the spirit, a “so there!” response.
For example, Samuel Johnson in Lives of the English Poets (1779) commented on John Milton’s Lycidas: “The diction is harsh, the rhymes uncertain, and the numbers unpleasing. . . Its form is that of a pastoral—easy, vulgar, and therefore disgusting.”
Shakespeare comes in for a wagonload of negative comments. Here’s just one on A Midsummer Night’s Dream by Samuel Pepys in his Diary: “The most insipid, ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life.”
On Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge, the Library Journal’s reviewer called it “. . .a rather damp fizzle.”
The examples of obtuse comments from rejection letters are just as ludicrous. Here’s just one example: On Lord of the Flies by William Golding, the rejection letter said “It does not seem to us that you have been wholly successful in working out an admittedly promising idea.”
Here are a few other quotes to keep in mind:
“The purpose of much criticism is to flatter the vanity of the describer.” Author John Fowles.
“There are people who are too intelligent to become authors, but they do not become critics.” W. H Auden.
And my favorite quote is from President Theodore Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
I hope this column provides the inspiration to all of us writers to plod on.