if you’re getting criticized, at least you’re doing something.

A hack writer who would not have been considered fourth rate in Europe, who tried out a few of the old proven “sure-fire” literary skeletons with sufficient local color to intrigue the superficial and the lazy.
— William Faulkner on Mark Twain

I picked up a copy of Bad Press: The Worst Critical Reviews Ever! over the weekend at the Oswego County SPCA‘s yard sale fundraiser. In addition to being full of words spiteful and sensational over works famous and forgotten, it offers a great lesson for everyone working hard at something who suffers the barbs of the jealous, the ignorant and the uninformed.

[I]n the restricted space of two-thirds of a page, Cooper has scored 114 offences against literary art out of a possible 115. It breaks the record.
— Mark Twain on James Fenimore Cooper’s “The Deerslayer”

At conferences and in online communities, I hear from such folk regularly. They talk of some exciting new direction they try to steer their institution toward, only to deal with cross-currents of those who prefer still waters to charting new currents. Of plans for the greater good that garner resistance from those looking to pad their own ego. Of ideas for user-centric websites that get blank stares and requests to prominently post a mission statement that means nothing to anyone.

The scientific machinery is not very delicately constructed, and the imagination of the reader is decidedly overtaxed.
— New York Times review of H.G. Wells’ “The Invisible Man”

Such motivated, creative people who deal with criticism and petty complaints  have something in common with the recipients of brickbats in this book: They’re doing something. Perhaps something awesome. Perhaps something that represents a small step in the right direction. And perhaps something slightly misguided. But they are trying to break a stale and staid status quo. They are trying new things. Good for them! If you’re one such person, good for you!

This obscure, eccentric and disgusting poem.
— Voltaire on John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”

Great writers did not become famous by not publishing their work for fear of criticism; they forged ahead believing their work had value and a potential audience. Whether anyone’s fresh ideas succeed or not, there is much more success in trying something than in never taking risks at all.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “if you’re getting criticized, at least you’re doing something.

  1. I feel compelled to criticize this post in order to help you feel assured that you’re moving in the right direction. But alas, I cannot counter. Instead, I’ll share this quote from the book Zen Guitar, which you may appreciate:

    Bob Dylan was being criticized by this guy who was saying, “Your new songs aren’t as relevant as your old songs.” And Dylan just said, “Well, I’m out here writing songs – what are you doing?” – Tom Petty.

    Also, as your examples reveal, even the greatest artists and thinkers sometimes get it wrong when they criticize others. It just goes to show you that brilliant minds aren’t always so brilliant.

  2. Fabulous post & loved Andrew’s comment as well. Thanks Tim!

  3. Well said. I agree that criticism can be an indicator that you’re taking a risk. Anger is another indicator – http://susantevans.wordpress.com/2011/01/23/did-you-just-say-that/

    When I get no reaction to an idea, I worry.

  4. Tim Nekritz

    ANDREW: That is a great quote in itself. I do get tired of armchair quarterbacks who fancy themselves experts in everything but don’t seem to actually do anything.

    TERI: Thanks! Andrew and I — we’re a team. ; )

    SUSAN: That’s a good point (and blog entry!). An apathetic reaction means the idea may not be good. Extreme reactions either way mean the idea must have some kind of merit.

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