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.