It may or may not always be nice to be noticed. Perhaps there truly is no such thing as bad publicity. There is at least a grain of truth in the idea that the opposite of love is not hate, but apathy. All of which may help to explain why, when the editor of Weirdbook announced that the most recent issue (in other words, the one to which I was a contributor) had been reviewed by Tangent Online but also warned everyone that it was an unpleasantly unfavorable critique, I nonetheless clicked on the link to see what was being said:
In the Weirdbook editor’s defense, he was unstinting in his assurances that he disagreed with the reviewer, that he was proud of every story he had selected and truly believed that together they comprised one of if not the finest issue of the magazine since its revival. But I am both reasonably thick-skinned and morbidly curious, so I felt the need to see for myself.
It is, without question, a review written by someone who was not wildly enamored with the issue in question. But it’s also an evenhanded review in the sense that the reviewer tends to say one good thing and one bad thing about each story. Granted, in more cases than not the praise is faint and the fault-finding is harsh, but the whole thing doesn’t read as vindictive axe-grinding. (It also should be noted that my last name is spelled wrong throughout the review, which was an error I noticed in the proofs of the issue and asked the editor to correct. The reviewer also makes reference to proofreading errors throughout, which makes me wonder if the editor sent an advance copy out for review before final edits were done. I’m completely familiar with the phenomenon of typographical errors becoming so annoying that they color the perception of the artistic merits, so add that grain of salt into the mix, as well.)
At any rate, here is the portion of the review dedicated to my tale, The Maiden Voyage of the Ariona:
In a sort of 19th century, the narrator is a worker on a pilot project for an undersea rail which is ultimately intended to cross the width of the Pacific. But as above is not so below and there are some things Man Was Not Meant to Meet.
Suspension of disbelief is essentially impossible with this thoroughly retro story, which is conceptually a bit like Verne meets Lovecraft with a dash of Burroughs and told in a style where nacreous pearlescent rails fade into a brumous caliginosity. That said, it’s quite imaginative and the late action sequence of the story is quite a lot of chilling, thrilling fun.
All in all that’s not too shabby! If I were in need of a positive pull-quote, “quite imaginative and the late action sequence of the story is quite a lot of chilling, thrilling fun” would certainly do in a pinch. Furthermore, I wholeheartedly agree that I gave in to my worst vocabulary show-off urges in the story, though the reviewer does seem hip to the idea that I did so at least in part to evoke the material I was paying homage to. I regret nothing.
But to be honest, it’s the following bit that really gives me pause: “Suspension of disbelief is essentially impossible with this thoroughly retro story.” I’m not sure if the reviewer is saying that the concepts in the story are far-fetched in a retro way, meaning that he would also find it impossible to suspend disbelief while reading Frankenstein or War of the Worlds or any other canonical classic based on ideas which we all later learned were Not The Way It Works. Or, conversely, if he has no problem with those implausible stories of reanimating the dead and alien invaders from Mars, but finds my fantastical creations so much more outre that they overwhelm any illusion. Either one would be hard for me to wrap my head around.
Ultimately it doesn’t matter. This is a Second-hand Advice post, and while I’m at it I can throw in a bonus nugget of wisdom gleaned from my college writing courses: you don’t argue with criticism. You can wrestle with it in your head, you can ultimately choose to dismiss or ignore it for any reason or no reason, or you can accept it and adjust your current and future work accordingly. At most, and at best, the proper response to a critic is your current and future work itself. The urge to fire back should be channeled into your writing; if you feel you were right all along, then double down on your ideas and let the results speak for themselves.
The main piece of advice I wanted to repeat, however, was this classic: you can’t please all the people all the time. One criticism I have received is that my stories are slow burns where the wonder or terror only bursts through the mundane world at or near the end. This is a totally fair observation! And while I construct stories that way on purpose, because those are a kind of story I really like to tell, I am aware of the merits of stretching myself now and then, which leads to stories like The Maiden Voyage of the Ariona: set in an impossible past, premised on fantastical pseudo-technology and piling on the supernatural threats as well. And thusly insulated against charges of telling a story which is too sedate or insufficiently speculative, I leave myself wide open to being called out for rendering suspension of disbelief impossible. Damned if I do, damned if I don’t. Nonetheless, I’ll keep writing my slow burning, late twisting tales, and the occasional all-out weirdness, too. Not everyone will like all of them, but hopefully they’ll each find a few admirers here and there.