The Merits and Limits of Praise

Why you should ignore the opinions of other people regarding your literary output.

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If a story gets written on paper that was once part of a forest and nobody reads it, did I waste my time with that philosophy degree?

I write more these days than ever before, for suddenly I have some outlets (the fine Thanet Writers among them) and (presumably) a readership. I get reactions to my writing now—feedback, even—occasionally, money. But this change in circumstances made me think about my motivation. I’ve always written, but never so consistently, doggedly, nor indeed with such an eye to what’s likely to please others, rather than myself. Are my scribbles rendered impure in consequence?

I don’t think so. Writing is communication. Wanting your writing to be read is no weirder than a reluctance to holler your deepest feelings into an abyss. And writing for an audience makes you less self-indulgent, I reckon. It makes you hone your craft, think about being understandable, if not universal. Take time to select your target audience, that’s the trick. Have a reader in mind you want to impress with your insights and wit. Doubtless the fact I want to make my younger self stabby says something terrifying about my psychology, but I imagine my ideal reader to be the me of ten years ago, sick with jealous rage at how much better I write than she does.

The only difficulty comes if you abandon any emotional truth and devote your scribblings entirely to pleasing and impressing others. If a writer feasts on famine, then they and their readers will starve.

If we only seek public admiration, we give others power over us. We must write things calculated to make them admire us, and refrain from writing things that may trigger their disfavour. If your goal is to please others, you are no longer free to please yourself, and surely this runs counter to all creative endeavours. Art is self-indulgent or meaningless.

Instead, the stoics say, we should choose to be indifferent to other people’s opinion of our writing. We must be consistent in our indifference too, as unfussed by praise as by criticism. This is impossibly hard advice to follow, yet I know I’m happier when I manage it. It’s foolish to waste your energy with things we can’t control, and other people’s opinions fall squarely into that camp. I don’t have it within my power to stop people mocking my writing, so I should instead focus my attention where I have at least some power, like not writing anything mock-worthy.

It’s particularly daft to want to write something immortal, since you won’t actually care a jot what happens after you die; moreover, it’s insane to imagine future generations heaping praise upon your sweet self, when I find it just about impossible to admit the talents of my contemporaries, still less praise them. Make the best of today instead. Write a better sentence than you could have written yesterday. If you must rely on the opinions of others to tell you whether today’s sentence is better than yesterday’s, you’re no writer. I look back at the guff I wrote ten years ago and cringe at its crudity. And that’s as it should be.

It’s tricky, I realise. I write for attention and praise too, probably more than most. We are all eager to enjoy the good opinions of others. It helps to remember that to win the public’s praise you must adopt the public’s values, and in particular, their notion of success. Do you really want to be stocked in an airport WHSmith? Yeah, alright, you think you do. But really? Really really? Think how many literary compromises you’d need to make. Wouldn’t it be preferable to write something as decent and truthful as you can make it, rather than a sparkly tome destined to weigh down a beach towel? The public are idiots. Look how they keep voting. Who cares what they think?

As a writer, you’ll find plenty of people eager to discourage you when you admit to literary ambition. Those who claim you’ll never finish your novel, or find a publisher, or achieve any success. These are particularly the people whose opinions you want to ignore. Find a writing community who’ll support you and writers whose opinions you value and trust. In Thanet we’re blessed with a bounty of both.

Ironically, an indifference to other’s opinions is very likely to win their baffled admiration. Ignore that too.

Melissa Todd completed an MA in creative writing at Canterbury Christchurch in 2009, and writes novels, short stories and opinion pieces.

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