Earlier this year our family ventured out into Melbourne City on a 35⁰C day to attend the Moomba festival. It was as to be expected – hot, dusty, crowded, and abounding with opportunities to spend money on fleeting experiences of dubious value (we’ll probably be back again next year).
One thing I didn’t mind spending a few coins on wasn’t even at Moomba. It was a busker in the CBD. She said nothing, and did not move; her “act” was to swathe herself from head to foot – even her eyes were covered in a translucent strip of muslin – in white cloth and stand on a box with arms outstretched in a position of welcome, next to a row of paint pots and brushes and a sign that said simply, “Paint me.” Judging by the small and isolated patches of clean cloth and the disparate decorations, many had taken her up on the invitation. While we watched, a man in his thirties approached, studied her with a hint of a smirk, then took up a brush and adorned a section of skirt.
The performance made me uneasy, for reasons that I found difficult to define. The level of trust required went beyond what I would be prepared to give; her movement and visibility were restricted, and she had no control over what strangers might choose to paint on her. The intimacy of the exchange – touching a stranger’s body, even filtered through the intermediary of the paint brush – was another level too far for me. Or perhaps it was the silence that disturbed. Strangers touch people all the time as part of their jobs (think hairdressers, medical professionals, beauticians and massage therapists) without the thought of it creeping me out, but in those cases there is customarily an exchange of words that gives at least the illusion of a closer relationship or connection.
“I don’t know how I feel about this,” I said to my husband as we waited for our ten-year-old daughter to make her mark and deposit coins in the woman’s money bag.
“What – don’t you think it’s art?” he replied with a hint of facetiousness.
“Oh, it’s definitely art,” I replied, “but just because it’s art, doesn’t mean you have to like it.”
So what does this have to do with writing? Like the busker, a good writer makes herself vulnerable to strangers. There are filters between the writer and the reader, just as the busker had layers of cloth, a paint brush and her silence creating a divide between her and her patrons. Yet still part of a writer’s psyche is laid bare and defenseless. It takes a certain amount of courage to send out one’s work for public judgement, and many a talented author’s career has stopped before it has started because of fear.
And just as the busker runs the risk of being pushed off her box, wantonly splattered in paint or having a big cock and balls painted on her back, so does the author expose herself to the risk of being reviewed by idiots.
The thing that bemuses me about negative reviews for good stories is the assumption on the reviewer’s part that the world owes them stories that conform to their narrow definition of “art”. It’s all very well to point out objective flaws in a story – the logic flaw here, the poorly crafted prose there, the Mary Sue character somewhere else – and it’s even fair enough to say, “This was not to my taste because…” But to say, “I didn’t like it, therefore it sucked,” is to me the height of arrogance.
You don’t have to like something for it to be good art. You don’t even have to be sure about how you feel. But you do have to feel something. Before you write that scathing review, try if nothing else to feel some compassion for the author.