I can go a long time without doing it.
There are a lot of weeks — months, even — when I don’t care at all what strangers are saying about my books on the Internet. But when I do care, and I feel vulnerable, and I need more than anything else to stop making myself vulnerable — that’s when I go looking. Compulsively.
Not for the good reviews. Those, I skim right over. I’m glad they exist, but I don’t read them. I graze my eyes down the page until I find the one- and two-star reviews, and then I linger there, stomach bottoming out, limbs doing that weird tingling floating thing that feels bad, like a tongue on a D-cell battery contact, buzzy and sick.
People talk about authors behaving badly, flipping out when they read negative reviews, calling on posses of readers to back them up because no one, no one, has the right to hate their books.
I wonder who these people are.
I read my own negative reviews and feel sick and think yeah. Yeah.
If I’m not careful — if I don’t stop myself, reframe my mental conversation, redirect my energy — I can make it so I can never think of one of my books without wincing. A book I worked hard on, that has hundreds of four- and five-star reviews. A book half a dozen people have written to me to say, This meant so much to me. Thank you for writing this.
I can make it so that book is shit, in my mind. It’s a failure.
I can make it so when I think about the next book I’m going to write, part of what I’m always thinking is, Whatever you do, don’t make THAT mistake again. Because that sucked. You sucked, there.
The funny thing is, I’m one of the most well-adjusted people I know. But I’m a writer, and yeah.
So sometimes I think about U2. It must have been after I had a few books out that I first started doing it, after I experienced the mitigated joy of having my books compared. This one’s not as good as that one. These are better than those. I wish she’d go back to doing that. And so forth.
I was thinking about how, when you’re U2, you put out a few albums, and one of them is Boy. Then one of them is Joshua Tree. And people love Joshua Tree. Four bazillion people love it, and they’re not just university students or depressed teenagers, they’re moms in minivans and kids in elementary school, grocery store clerks, mechanics, everyone. I mean, some people fucking hate it, and they have to tell you so really loud, because the love threatens them. But for the most part, yeah. Joshua Tree. That album fucking ruled.
So you’re U2. You’re a band. You put out another album, and it’s not Joshua Tree.
It’s never going to be Joshua Tree again, right? That’s the thing. It’s just not. It’s going to be something else. And wow, do a lot of people not like the next album that isn’t Joshua Tree. And the one after that, which also isn’t Joshua Tree.
I mean, some people do. Some people like the new album more. Some people like all the albums equally. Some people like Joshua Tree for when they’re sad and the new album to make them feel happy, and they like this live album to remind them of the time they were nineteen in Dublin, and the album from the early 2000s didn’t really do it for them, but whatever, it’s cool.
Some people wish you’d keep making Joshua Tree over and over again until you die, and other people wish you’d never recorded in the first place, because obviously Boy was your pinnacle and it’s all downhill from there.
But you’re U2. You have to not care about any of that. You have to make whatever album it is that you’re making right now, and not care. You have to assume that your job — your only job — is to make music, and you have to appreciate that in fact whether or not or how much people like your albums isn’t any kind of objective measure of anything. It doesn’t prove definitively that an album is good or bad, even, or demonstrate that you shouldn’t have made it. It’s just … noise. Noise you have to learn to ignore, if you’re U2, and if you want to continue being U2 for the next few decades.
Now, let me just say, I’m not U2, obviously. Nor is this supposed to be a thinly disguised screed about how I am a genius but people are being mean to me or not liking my books or something. If you’re squinting and trying to read my post sideways, like, What did I miss?!?! please relax. Everything’s cool. I’ve been very lucky, and mostly people do seem to like my books, and everything’s cool.
I just wanted to talk about how I’ve learned to think about U2 when I need it, because it helps me remember that not everyone is going to like everything, ever. That everyone liking everything is not even a real thing, or any sort of reasonable goal, and that trying to write while also trying to think about whether people (WHO? WHICH PEOPLE?) will like what I’m writing is the best possible way to guarantee I’ll end up miserable.
Also, it doesn’t work to write that way, because not everyone will like it.
They don’t, in fact, have to like it.
Mary Ann Rivers was telling me the other day that I need to read Tina Fey’s Bossypants, and that there’s a great part of that book where Fey is talking about how her friend Amy Poehler helped her understand this part of being a person, being a woman, and being an artist: not everyone is going to like what you do all the time. No one has to like you, and no one has to like your work, and actually that being liked is not the fucking point. The point, if you’re Fey and Pohler, is to make comedy that speaks to something you care about.
The point, if you’re U2, is to make music.
The point, if you’re an artist, is to make art. And everything else is just noise.
What I try to remind myself to do, when I’m thinking about U2, is write love stories that matter to me, that say things I want to say, that dig into characters I find interesting, and to do that as best I can, always. And to tell myself, on the bad days, that no one has to like it.
This statement is complicated by the fact that I want to sell books, and that my agent has to like it, and so does my editor. But it’s not as complicated as you might think. If you make the music that means something, write the books that matter to you, look inward for your material and your truths instead of outward, people will like what you produce.
Maybe not a lot of people. Occasionally, just your mother, or your spouse, or two of your friends.
Or maybe as many people as liked Joshua Tree, or Fifty Shades.
You can’t know. It isn’t your job to try to know. Trying to know is crazy making.
My husband and I recently watched Cameron Crowe’s documentary about Pearl Jam, Pearl Jam 20, which was interesting for a lot of reasons (one of them being the near-complete absence of women from the entire movie, HOMG). What I like about documentaries like this — or Last Waltz, about The Band’s final concert — is what they have to say about making art over a long period of time.
Because what these sorts of movies do is dig up all the ways in which people support each other in making art. How they learn how to do it and keep doing it. How they start out as four or five awkward teenagers who just want to hang out in their rooms and play the same four chords six hundred times, but twenty years pass and they’ve managed to become adults and friends who play and collaborate together nearly every day.
I like the reminder that this is somewhere you can end up if you begin in the right place, and if you learn the right stuff as you muddle through the middle. If you have enough support, and work you want to do in the world, and some tenacity, and if you decide at all the right points, Yeah, let’s keep going like this. I want to.
All of these documentaries, the stories about bands like U2 and Pearl Jam, the tales I hear from writers who have been in the trenches a long time — they have a part in the middle about the time they almost quit. The six albums in a row they put out that all but their most die-hard fans hated. The contracts they lost, the agents who dropped them, the dive bars they ended up playing in.
And when they talk about coming out of those periods of their careers, of their lives, they often talk about this music they had to make, this book they had to write, and they just couldn’t care. They knew no one would like it, and they couldn’t care, because they had no fucks left to give about whether anyone liked it. No one had to like it. They just had to make it.
Who did you write that for? they’ll be asked, and they’ll say, For myself.
For the band.
Because I had to. Because I wanted to.
Because this is what I do.
You don’t have to like it.