Since my novel came out at the start of October, I’ve been getting a lot of feedback. It’s mixed, as is often the case with art, and I consider myself blessed to not only have people engaging with my work in a way that challenges & entertains them, but in a way that arouses strong opinions. I feel doubly blessed when readers feel comfortable sharing their opinions with others. This is, after all, how my book will spread, from all reviews and comments, positive and negative.
Of course, this is also a delicate position to be in. As a writer, I want people to like my work. I want it to make people happy or at least glad they engaged with my writing. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time.
I’m also a reader, and a fierce critic. I’ve reviewed theater, film, books, and visual art. I enjoy the art of criticism, and I like reading well-written reviews of movies I don’t even care to see.
Strong opinions, well constructed and thoroughly examined, are a great means for others to appreciate and approach a work of art. Think of docents & curators of visual art, Ben Brantley’s Broadway reviews (wonderful to read even if you don’t live in NYC, though God Help Me if he ever reviews I play I write), Pauline Kael’s analysis of The Last Tango in Paris and Ebert’s decades of pithy and thoughtful analysis. Criticism, indeed, comes from a place of great love and a desire to see art be the best it can be.
This is why the criticism that stings the most is that which says, “I don’t get it.” I Don’t Get It (IDGI) is an odd and frustrating phrase to read in response to one’s art. It implies a lack of curiosity and a lack of willingness to exert the effort to reach across the divide towards “getting it” and appreciating it.
We all experience the “I Don’t Get It” at times: in a gallery of modern art, perhaps, where the ratio of “I Don’t Get It” to “Brilliant!” is likely 20:1. Or when reading a genre that isn’t our usual territory. (It took me quite a lot of effort to turn Ursula K. LeGuin from an IDGI to a WOW!)
But it’s the effort that counts. It’s the willingness to engage and question why you may not appreciate something that others find gorgeous. IDGI shuts down the connection before it begins. It tells the artist that their work failed because the consumer chose not to try to understand it. IDGI is not dislike or boredom, but irreverence and a lack of curiosity.
An example from my own life: I just finished “Just Kids” by Patti Smith. I am an admirer of her work and as a teen I idolized her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. I was thrilled to get a chance to peer inside their unique relationship and rises to fame. When it won the National Book Award, I was convinced that my reading would be reveletory.
My experience? Meh. It was a nice book. A good book. A perfectly adequate story about some interesting enough folks. But those qualities placed it far from the expectations I had. I felt that I must have not gotten it.
That IDGI response made me feel stupid and annoyed, both at myself and all those who had hyped the book. Then, unwilling to accept my own lukewarm response, I gave it a second look. I examined the story in context of Smith’s work, the time in history she describes, her own emotional attachment to the stories, and (to a lesser degree) Mapplethorpe’s body of work. In doing so, I found a different story, a far subtler one in which there are no grand epiphanies, no life-and-death choices, no passionate bouts of rage and sorrow (except towards the end and well-deservedly). There was no magic. No Hollywood sheen. No editor screaming to juice it up. It was, in a very real way, just two kids. Some luck, some verve, some privilege, some talent, some timing, some happenstance, all leading to fame and fortune, in an odd and disjointed kind of way. It was a story of stumbling into greatness just by living your life day to day in the only way that feels right. When I realized this, I felt envy. Smith lucked into so many opportunities that others claw up cliffs for. But that is part of the beauty of the book, too. Her life is counterpoint to Robert’s from the start to the end. He lived his life with great deliberateness. She, with great happenstance and simplicity. Both are alluring, and both lead to cultural relevance. Add to this the New York City art & music scene in the 60s and 70s. Suddenly the story opened up for me, and I found myself loving this book.
This is where I arrived after refusing to take I Don’t Get It for an answer.
As I’ve been hearing more opinions of my own book, Lunatic Fringe, I’ve been getting my fair share of IDGIs too. There are those who find the sex too odd or raw, or the feminist discourse too didactic.
I’m not going to argue that they are wrong; I’m not that tacky. My only request is that readers try to spend the same time with my book that I did with Just Kids. Give it the benefit of the doubt. Reach into an experience that one may not live in the day to day.
When I was courting agents and publishers, I got a regular response that lesbian werewolves were “unmarketable.” This is code for “our audience won’t get it.” It indicates that readers won’t extend themselves, won’t try to get it, won’t try to understand the importance of the story or the similarities between two girls in love and their own love lives. They won’t reach far enough to understand why some readers are flipping with joy over the book.
I Don’t Get It means the reader sees fisting and thinks “extreme” instead of “intimate,” or feminist discourse and sees “didacticism” instead of “courting ritual.”
Not all readers have the time, energy, or interest to reconsider their own first impressions to a work of art. Often I don’t. But settling for I Don’t Get It means those hours of reading are wasted and forgotten rather than turned into an experience and connection. Even if it means hard work and extra time, I’d rather work for the latter than settle for the former.