August 31, 2021 5:00 PM
I once heard that Bukowski’s tombstone had just two words on it as an epitaph: “Don’t try.” These words have been interpreted and analyzed, and my favorite interpretation of these words is the one that ties them into another quote of Bukowski’s, one in which he encourages people, saying, “If you’re going to try, try all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start.” It’s something along those lines. I particularly like that notion that we should give something we love our truest efforts. In fact, the notion is that we must pursue that dream with our truest efforts, lest we forfeit all lesser efforts to the ultimate failure to attain what we want.
Of course, careful analysis of exactly why we want what we want is important, too. There’s a cost-benefit analysis to be done. Is it worth spending all those hours at the kitchen table or in your den in order to finish up that novel of yours? What are you giving up to do it? In some cases, you’re giving up time spent laughing with your wife; you’re giving up time spent teaching or learning from your children; you’re giving up time spent relaxing and being grateful for what you already have. In many ways, pursuing one’s dreams—of fame, of grandiosity, of excess, of money, of a legacy left after your death—is a foolish endeavor. The evils of our hearts are such that we pursue these very temporary things in exchange for eternal things. Love is one such eternal thing, the thing that reverberates through generations. Love—and all the lessons instilled or received wholly because of it—sings through time, and it is perhaps the one true legacy you can leave to have a lasting, meaningful impact on the world. Yes, there are legacies of great evil, too, and they reach through the ages in similarly strong—yet fundamentally different—ways, but love is the greatest testament to who you were when you were here. So, when we pursue material riches and diaphanous fame in exchange for time spent showing sacrificial love, of course, much of the time, we’re doing ourselves—and the world—a disservice. Nevertheless, our culture highly encourages this pursuit. We’re told so often to do what makes us happy and to follow our hearts and our dreams.
And I know—rationally—that this pursuit is folly.
But I still pursue. I try to pursue these dreams in my downtime. Yes, I have given up my fair share of playing with my kids or sitting with my wife to write my novel (and I will probably surrender far too much more of those things as time goes on), but, on the whole, I’ve tried my best to sneak my endeavors into the moments of life where otherwise there would be nothing noble or grand or sacrificial.
I’ve expended a lot of downtime in my pursuits. The dream is important to me. Writing and publishing my most recent novel has been a gruesome endeavor, and it has taxed me greatly—from the painful lesson of the book’s cover art, which I detailed in a previous blog post, to the quiet slowing of sales, to the realization that this work probably won’t become incredibly popular just yet (perhaps when the series is finished, I keep telling myself)—and yet I’ve kept pushing onward, despite the obstacles I’ve faced.
More recently, I received my first negative review. From my view, it was pretty scathing. It enlightened me, telling me my novel contained sexism, toxic masculinity, and that it infantilized women. Those three words and phrases (sexism, toxic masculinity, infantilization of women) will forever be branded on my brain as something I need to be careful of and work on. That review alone was the impetus for this month’s other blog post, which served as a really great reflection for me (and I hope it serves other fledgling writers equally well).
A writer’s first negative review is an important milestone on the journey to becoming a well-loved author. This milestone has made me reflect on a number of things and reevaluate my dream. That’s not to say it’s because it’s a negative review. I would have welcomed a one-star review if it had been given for a variety of other reasons. “This book’s too confusing.” “This book’s too boring.” “These characters fell flat for me.” Any of those reasons would have made some sense to me, as these are areas where I already suspected The Illness of the Isle was a bit deficient. These were areas where I already knew I could grow. But... sexism? I was just so utterly floored to see a review pointing out sexism. I thought it was enough that I’d made my main character a girl. I thought it was enough that I’d tried to subvert traditional gender roles by making women sifters and making other women pinnacles (leaders of the Isle’s Voice). One of my characters is hailed as the greatest sairad in the land, and she's a woman, too.
Didn’t I do a good enough job?
Well, thankfully, I dropped those defenses and began to really examine the work itself. And then it happened. I realized that the reviewer was right to be outraged, and she was right to call me out. So, here, I want to formally thank Pragmastery (check out her website here) for speaking her truth. It takes courage to shed light on society’s injustices and to be honest even when the truth might hurt.
I’d already planned on making a few small revisions to my novel with the release of its audiobook (which should be out sometime in September) and its new cover (which I also discussed in the aforementioned blog post about cover art). Up until now, those small revisions included fixing a number of typos (I kick myself every time I see one, but I’m a self-published author on a budget, and I tried my very best), a few continuity errors, and adding a minor side character to chapter one to give it some levity (the plot didn’t change whatsoever, but chapter one needed some life injected into it). Now, the revisions will also include the removal of a number of harmful depictions of sexism and toxic masculinity. I cannot promise to remove them all (the book is humongous, after all, and I’m still no expert, despite the deep reflection and education I’ve undertaken since beginning to scrutinize my novel), but I’m going to try to set this right. Hopefully this revision makes for a more enjoyable read for my readers, regardless of whether they're men or women or some other gender.
Why change it? If you’re a writer, you’ve no doubt got something of an ego, and you may suffer from the call to possess and uphold artistic integrity. “It’s art. You shouldn’t have to change it just because somebody was offended.” That’s true. I don’t have to change it. But I want to. Honestly, I do. These kinds of crossroads are where important decisions are made, and I believe my response now to what some might consider a little thing (one bad review out of such a small handful of reviews altogether) will incredibly influence the way I respond to similar issues in the future. At this crossroad, I could decide to get defensive and publicly deny the allegations that my book is sexist, or that it glorified any such thing that the reviewer pointed out. I could equally make a simple, public apology and move on.
But I don’t want to deny or ignore or try to hush or quell those who point out the problems in my novel. To do so would be to deny that I need growth, and I won’t be doing that. Instead, my goal is to remove some of these depictions (as many as I conceivably can), but it is not in an attempt to pretend that they never happened. In fact, part of the reason I’m making this blog post is to plainly and publicly acknowledge that there are problematic depictions in my work. I’m making these changes so that anybody who interacts with my work can be exposed to as little overt/subtle sexism as possible. I believe that the mere depiction of sexism is not problematic, but, if it is to be there, it needs to be intentionally placed, and it needs to be disparaged. I didn’t achieve that depiction in my original work; the pieces of sexism included were placed unintentionally and thus not highlighted or disparaged. And while I don’t believe they were in every case glorified, they were similarly not belittled, and that’s a problem.
My number one goal is to tell stories that move people and impact their lives. So many authors have told stories that have moved me, and I want to do the same for those who read my work. But that means understanding that the subtle messages within a story are just as important as the messages at the story’s forefront. It’s important for authors to be intentional in their depiction of certain topics, and I failed in this way.
So, what should I do? It’s not too late... I could turn back. I could take down my website, my Goodreads page, and unpublish my book from Amazon. That’s the only way, at this point, I could pull the wool over my eyes and pretend that I never wrote the poor things that have been pointed out in my work. Nobody would really know. I only have a small readership now. I’ve only made a few sales. There is a small part of me that thought about this. It’s an odd sort of defense mechanism, but it’s one I employed with my last novel. When I finished it and had no strategy or idea of how I would get it out into the world… I simply abandoned the project and let the sole copy of that novel sit on a shelf.
And it got me nowhere.
So, we return to that notion of trying—trying all the way. It would be all too easy to call it quits after earning such a painful review right out of the gate. It might be a lot easier to argue and become defensive. It might be easier to try to apologize and brush the thing under the rug. However, I sincerely dream of the day where my work stands somewhere alongside some of the fantasy greats, and I realize that getting there means trying all the way or not trying at all. And trying all the way—to me—means responding to certain painful milestones in a positive way that will not only help my writing improve but help me to see and value other viewpoints and ultimately grow as a person. As much as my reviewer’s vitriol burns, I need to sift from it the truth, reflect on my work, and respond accordingly.
And I will. The revised version of the novel should be available sometime in September.