Friday, January 6, 2012

A Little Perspective

There've been a few author/reviewer scandals lately (see here and here) and it inspired me to want to start the New Year off with a little perspective.

Below is one of my favorite horrible reviews (and the poem it is reviewing) of all time:

Voltaire: "Poem on the Lisbon Disaster, or: An Examination of that Axiom 'All Is Well," 1755

Oh, miserable mortals! Oh wretched earth!
Oh, dreadful assembly of all mankind!
Eternal sermon of useless sufferings!
Deluded philosophers who cry, "All is well,"
Hasten, contemplate these frightful ruins,
This wreck, these shreds, these wretched ashes of the dead;
These women and children heaped on one another,
These scattered members under broken marble;
One-hundred thousand unfortunates devoured by the earth
Who, bleeding, lacerated, and still alive,
Buried under their roofs without aid in their anguish,
End their sad days!
In answer to the half-formed cries of their dying voices,
At the frightful sight of their smoking ashes,
Will you say: "This is result of eternal laws
Directing the acts of a free and good God!"
Will you say, in seeing this mass of victims:
"God is revenged, their death is the price for their crimes?"
What crime, what error did these children,
Crushed and bloody on their mothers' breasts, commit?
Did Lisbon, which is no more, have more vices
Than London and Paris immersed in their pleasures?
Lisbon is destroyed, and they dance in Paris!

Rousseau's Letter to Voltaire Regarding the Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake, August 18, 1756

All my complaints are . . . against your poem on the Lisbon disaster, because I expected from it evidence more worthy of the humanity which apparently inspired you to write it. You reproach Alexander Pope and Leibnitz with belittling our misfortunes by affirming that all is well, but you so burden the list of our miseries that you further disparage our condition. Instead of the consolations that I expected, you only vex me. It might be said that you fear that I don't feel my unhappiness enough, and that you are trying to soothe me by proving that all is

Do not be mistaken, Monsieur, it happens that everything is contrary to what you propose. This optimism which you find so cruel consoles me still in the same woes that you force on me as unbearable. Pope's poem alleviates my difficulties and inclines me to patience; yours makes my afflictions worse, prompts me to grumble, and, leading me beyond a shattered hope, reduces me to despair....

I cannot prevent myself, Monsieur, from noting . . . a strange contrast between you and me as regards the subject of this letter. Satiated with glory . . . you live free in the midst of affluence.10 Certain of your immortality, you peacefully philosophize on the nature of the soul, and, if your body or heart suffer, you have Tronchin11 as doctor and friend. You however find only evil on earth. And I, an obscure and poor man tormented with an incurable illness, meditate with pleasure in my seclusion and find that all is well. What is the source of this apparent contradiction? You explained it yourself: you revel but I hope, and hope beautifies everything...

I have suffered too much in this life not to look forward to another. No metaphysical subtleties cause me to doubt a time of immortality for the soul and a beneficent providence. I sense it, I believe it, I wish it, I hope for it, I will uphold it until my last gasp...

I am, with respect, Monsieur,
Jean-Jacques Rousseau


Voltaire had mailed a copy of his poem to Rousseau, and this was Rousseau’s response. Voltaire responded quite simply:

My dear philosopher, we are able, you and I, in the intervals of our ills, to reason in verse and prose. But at the present movement, you will pardon me for leaving there all these philosophical discussions which are only amusements.

He then went on to write CANDIDE, which Rousseau was convinced was written solely as a rebuttal to his criticism.

I know it’s tempting as an author to receive a bad review as a personal insult and a crushing blow to one’s career. Bad reviews suck. They really do. But just as it was within Rousseau’s right to respond truthfully and bluntly to Voltaire’s mailed poem, when an author releases a novel into the world, he or she has to be prepared for any response.

Guess what happened with CANDIDE? It became an instant bestseller. I have no doubt that Rousseau’s letter lit a fire in Voltaire…and that fire inspired and challenged him to do better, to defend himself, to move on to greatness.

And the only thing this back and forth accomplished? A juicy window into two historical figures – i.e.: gossip. Didn’t effect the impressions historians have of either of their work.

So just as it was Voltaire’s right to be crushed by Rousseau’s review or accept it and move on…I think any author should be grateful for honest responses and use them to challenge and better themselves…and move on. Voltaire may not have written CANDIDE if not for Rousseau’s challenge – or perhaps it wouldn’t have been as good. Which means that really, as much as bad reviews suck…they help – if taken constructively.

Because any author is capable of greatness if they let themselves be inspired.

And this goes for more than reviews, too – use rejection letters to spark the fire of creativity (urm, possibly literarlly, that’s ok too), and PERSEVERE!

PS – there’s much more to this Voltaire/Rousseau story – here’s a good paper I found on it if interested.


  1. I heard about this. It's very disheartening. It just goes to show you that if you post it out there for the world to see the world will see it. Events like this makes us all look at what we post differently.

  2. I would so prefer an honest review to a "nice" one. If people are too nice, I tend to disbelieve them, anyway. Great post!

  3. I definitely agree with you about the idea that one should take criticism and use it to improve. And, really, I think that's what many of not most authors do most of the time.

    However, I think the crux of the current reviewer/author uproar is really a result of mob mentality on both sides. People on both sides of the argument were quick to react in a judgmental, snarky, and completely immature manner which did nothing but fuel the fires.

    In addition to perspective, both sides need maturity, respect for others, and self-control. (In an ideal world. LOL.)

    Thanks for the interesting info about Voltaire and Rousseau! I have a special place in my heart for Candide--I sang a very difficult solo from the opera for my senior recital in college. :)

  4. Guess I'm behind the times, but I hadn't heard of all the uproard on Goodreads, but this is the second blog I've come across talking about it. Thanks for sharing the links so I could figure out what is going on.

  5. Dare I say, embracing the metaphysical tends to set apart big names from small ones, no matter what era it is, that goes for artists and world leaders alike, and too often it's mistaken for big-headedness. No great visionary ever was without understanding of the metaphysical way of life.
    What am I, Natalie? I have a clear cause as an artist to advocate kindness and tolerance, both as a writer and general voice. It was a choice I made after telling Lady Gaga my life story, something changed in me afterwards, a feeling of warmth overwhelmed me for days; I knew Gaga had focused her thoughts on me.
    And it's true, getting feedback allows artists to grow. The nerve of me, daring to take on wizardry. I didn't foresee what this would stir among the Harry Potter cast, opinions about me were divided; oh it's just another clone, he's cool. Yet I don't want wizards to be remembered for it. Is it anything more than the "old dog" trying to defend its honour, dissing anyone new with balls to step forth with their new vision. I had the (mis)fortune of meeting Dan Radcliffe when he was approaching the height of his drunken paranoia phase. But at the end of the day I grew so much as an artist because of him. All the suffering, crying, lost friendships, burned bridges, neglect. Because of Dan people hurted, acting careers were screwed over. It's awful. Yet, I never gave up on my dream of creating a new generation of wizardry. I wouldn't be so far without Lady Gaga's blessings.
    You see Natalie, I've taken my work, which is my life, to the ragged edge and paid the price, I've been hurt, neglected which has nearly killed me. Lady Gaga is a healer without the need to be physically present. She can turn heads.
    I'll ask you Natalie, if you want YA to be more like Alice, as in dreamlike, utopian, you know what you can do. I don't write doomsday dystopia or vampires, I came to change the world for the better, and created trance to challenge dystopia. And I'm someone who doesn't stop until way too tired.

    Love your blog by the way, it's got nice colours and is my favourite. Take my story as inspiration, we can overcome any and all opposition if we believe in ourselves, if we believe in just one thing, love. Sure. I love the cast of Potter who have had a problem with me, even when I've allowed them to get to me and hurt me I've never stopped caring, because they are my friends and family always. I guess my life got turned upside down, and I kind of like it. :)

    More cat pics, thank you Natalie.
    I always have this image in mind of a white cat in a suit, gliding through space towards an airlock where my wizard is waiting to grab her, and it amuses me.


  6. A very inspiring post. I will definitely keep it in mind next time when my one crit partner sends back a stinging critique.


  7. I haven't had a book review yet, so I don't know exactly what it's like. However, I think as long as the reviewer is respecting me as a writer, than I won't be too upset. As long as they don't go Ad Hominem on me.

  8. I 'try' not to let bad reviews get to me, but I only pay attention to the ones that say more than 'this sucks'. Those ones I just ognore.

  9. Hear, hear! I know not everyone is going to like my book, and not everyone is going to "be nice" with their review. This is why I'm going to try VERY, very hard not to read my reviews. Reviews aren't for me, anyway, they're for other readers. :)

  10. Interesting.

    I suppose I don't understand why authors feel like they need to bash the reviewer(s) for them not liking the book. Not everyone is going to like it. Even the ones that end up being vicious, one has to take it with a grain of salt. You have to be the bigger person in the end and if you stoop low, like it seems what happened on that whole affair you linked up, you could destroy your career.

    I wonder when authors will get that.

  11. I like the perspective of this post. I learned from opponents. Not that they are necessarily right - they may have their own agenda. Should a critical review knock my pride and spark my anger something deep is stirred and shakes me out of my complacency. I'm not saying it's easy, but I make at least an effort to look beyond the insult to find the grain of gold.