On rejections and negative reviews

Over the last little while I’ve had many conversations with writers about critique and rejections and negative reviews, and I wanted to share some thoughts here in case they’re helpful to other writers.

I know a lot has been said already, and perhaps I’m not adding anything new or particularly insightful, but I occupy several hats in the writing space — I’m a writer, first and foremost, an editor at Ruqaya’s Bookshelf, a creative writing teacher at the Sarah Selecky Writing School, and I also work as a writing coach. Wearing these multiple hats has made me shift a lot in my own views on what makes writing ‘good.’ Working as a writing coach and teacher especially has really humbled me because it’s easy to forget how much fear and anxiety resides in a writer’s mind, how much stuff writers have to work through to get their words on the page, to get started even. It’s easy to forget the journey you’ve been on, and how hard it is, especially in the beginning. And even after you’ve had some success, the self-doubt doesn’t ever go away and I don’t know any writer who doesn’t grapple with it in some shape or form. Add critique and rejection to this mix, and the effect is only magnified, at times even paralyzing.

What I want to remind writers is that what is considered ‘good’ art, literary or otherwise, is entirely subjective. Almost every writer has a story about how many times they were rejected (by editors, who are ‘professionals’ in the field) before being published. There’s even a website, litrejections.com, that lists bestsellers that were initially rejected by publishers. And all authors talk about persistence, about not giving up, about believing in your work, and only needing that one yes. I know that feeling, multiple rejections followed by a yes, then followed by being longlisted for an award. Who was right — the multiple editors who saw flaws in my story and rejected it, or the editor who said yes and the jurors who longlisted the story? The answer is neither because there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when it comes to art and creativity. There is connection. But whether someone connects with my story or not is entirely out of my hands. The advice I give to writers is advice I give to myself, which is what Toni Morrison said: If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. If I feel connected to what I’m writing, and I feel engaged when I’m reading my own work, then that’s the best thing to aspire to.

Reviewers are nothing more than readers. They are not gatekeepers. I’ve read many books that have received rave reviews that felt flat to me and books that have won major awards that I just couldn’t get into. It doesn’t mean they weren’t good books; they were just not for me, not written to my personal taste, or not written based on my limited understanding of what makes a strong story.

One of my friends visited me recently with her 4 year old son and they picked a book from my shelf. This was a book I specifically went out to purchase because it received unanimous praise from every writer and reviewer I follow on social media. Normally I might borrow it from the library first but because I was so convinced by all the reviews that this book was going to be amazing, I just went out and purchased it without a second thought. When I finally read it, I felt like it didn’t live up to the hype at all. And this was a traditionally published book so it would have received care and attention from editors at multiple stages. I read it to my kids and they didn’t love it either. They read it once and then put it away. Anther writer friend messaged me a few days later to say she read the book and didn’t find it compelling either. But my friend’s son loved the book! I told him to take it home and my friend kept thanking me days later saying how much her son loved it and that he had even memorized it! Case in point — the book wasn’t written for me. I wouldn’t have been the right editor for it. If it showed up in my inbox I would likely have rejected it, or at the very least, suggested major revisions. And if the writer pushed back and didn’t want to make the changes I was suggesting, I would have respected that because it’s not my story.

On the other hand, I’ve loved books that other writers and reviewers have found fault with. Just because others haven’t connected with a story, doesn’t mean that I will have the same experience. So I want to challenge writers (and readers) to think about the power we give to reviews, positive or negative. To me personally, a reviewer is just a reader who shares their thoughts about whether they connected with a book or not. It isn’t a reflection of whether the book is ‘good’ or not, and it’s certainly not a reflection of whether the book is up to some standard or not. And as someone who teaches creative writing, I’ve been challenged in my own understanding of these standards and where they come from and how useful they are to uphold.

I also want to add the caveat that if you’re a writer who is receiving feedback from a reader or editor who is not from your community and who doesn’t understand historical or cultural references that people from your community would know and don’t need any explanation for, then take that feedback with a grain of salt. I learned this the hard way with my own writing. I’m now very selective when it comes to critique and feedback and only share my drafts with readers and writers who I know get my work, who don’t question it with an ‘othering’ lens. For writers from marginalized communities especially, don’t feel like you have to explain everything, that your work needs to be widely understood or else it doesn’t have value. Write for yourself, write for your people. If a reader says they don’t get something, they need to decenter themselves from your work. It took me a lot of time and wasted agony to get here, but I’m now in a place where I will never explain anything that is normal for my Muslim and/or South Asian characters. As one of my writing teachers explained, this is also about craft! If something is natural for your characters, for them to go out of their way to explain it, would be like the writer stepping in and not allowing the characters to completely take over the story and live in their world and be as they normally would.

To end, I know that rejections hurt. And that negative reviews hurt. We put our hearts and souls into our writing and when someone comes along and says they didn’t like it, that’s bound to be hurtful. So if you’ve been in this position, know that the hurt means that you care deeply about your writing and to hear negative things being said about it can absolutely feel deflating. It can make you question everything you know about writing and being a writer and it can even make you want to give up. I’ve been there. Almost every writer has been there. But also know that your writing is not meant for everyone. If someone doesn’t get your work, it’s not a weakness in the work. It simply means your story was not written for that reader. It’s so important not to forget this because rejection, in all its shapes and forms, in all stages of your writing journey, is a part of the writer’s life. So remind yourself of this, over and over again. You write because you love to write, because it brings you a kind of joy and contentment that you can’t experience with anything else. It’s a gift from your Creator. Cherish it, nurture it, honour it. Develop your writing skills, yes. But when the work is done, when you can step back and say to yourself, I’m proud of this thing that I created and I know I put my best work into it, then trust that anything negative that is said about this work is a reflection of the reader’s taste, not about the work itself.

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