First Hand — Bad reviews are like heartbreaks: Illustrator Roman Muradov on receiving criticism
Share your work: it’s a time-old piece of advice given to creatives. After all, it’s no good coming up with amazing ideas or cooking up brilliant projects if no one gets to see them, right? Luckily, sharing work online has never been simpler or easier. But while taking the leap and clicking ‘post’ can open you up to new opportunities, praise and support, it can also leave you vulnerable to negative comments and feedback.
Just ask San Francisco-based illustrator Roman Muradov. Releasing his first book in 2014, Roman later found himself facing mixed online criticism from reviewers. He soon learned to simply own the situation – collecting the comments, and even hosting some of the harshest criticisms on his own website. Here, he talks us through what the experience taught him about receiving feedback, finding humour in the face of negativity, and why, ultimately, it’s your opinion that matters the most.
Early on when I first started sharing my work, the feedback I received was largely positive and encouraging. But it was only when my first book came out, (In A Sense) Lost and Found, that an avalanche of shit blew down my ivory tower.
I wish I could say that the anger and bafflement of the online reviewers didn’t affect me, but it certainly did – I felt exposed and uncomfortable – it was like having strangers read your private letters and offer their analyses.
Afterwards I became mildly obsessed with bad reviews – many of them were quite funny and unjustifiably violent (it’s just a comic book). Eventually I started saving the choicest bits in the manner of the comedian Stewart Lee, who keeps an exhaustive collection of online criticisms that makes mine look quite timid in comparison. When you put all these bad reviews together, they look harmless, almost ridiculous.
“I wish I could say that it didn’t affect me, but it did. I felt exposed and uncomfortable.”
Understanding that criticism can be fickle
I began to feel pride in the polarising nature of my work – people either love it or hate it, and I would much prefer to be considered dreadful or brilliant rather than just fine. This review remains my favourite bit of criticism: “The problem with this book is that it went right over my head. Actually, that could be a problem with me.” (I honestly wish I’d come up with it.)
Finally, just the other day at a tiny literary festival, one person came up and told me that this first book of mine spoke to them, and that it was important and comforting during a difficult time. At once, that negated all the previous accusations of “simpering self-consciousness and self-satisfied intellectualism” (another great line I wish I’d written).
Roman's collection of criticisms on his website
Writing back and sharing the experience
I then began to share the feedback I received on social media, and people seemed to enjoy it quite a bit. Many of my followers even thanked me for putting it out, and said that it helped them overcome the fear of sharing their own work.
For younger people especially I’m sure it’s getting harder to show something outside accepted trends and niches – these days a person may be anything they want to be, but their worth will still be measured by success and popularity.
I later went further and wrote a reply to one particularly obnoxious reviewer. Upon re-reading, I thought it worked pretty well as a poem, and so I put it on Instagram as well. Again, people were generally amused. I’m a fan of Lydia Davis’s letter-of-complaint stories, and I don’t know if she actually sent them out, but I did send mine, and although the response was unremarkably apologetic, I saw the act as part of my artistic practice, and a decent way to waste my (and my reviewer’s) time. You can’t do anything about it, so you might as well partake in the farce.
“The important thing is not to let self-criticism develop into self-loathing, which is still a daily challenge for me.”
Bad reviews are like heartbreaks
Receiving negative feedback doesn’t necessarily get easier with time, but you do develop a certain resilience. Of course I want others to enjoy my work, but I’m not willing to change anything just to please them.
When I write, the only audience I consider is myself, and I strongly believe that it’s not out of contempt for the readers – if anything, I think it’s out of respect for them – shaping the book to appeal to others would be insincere and patronising. With this in mind, here are some tips to keep in mind if you ever find yourself faced with negative feedback.
Illustration by Roman
1. Be your worst (or best) critic. If you prepare yourself for the worst, no one can really hurt you – not even the most vicious troll. The important thing is not to let self-criticism develop into self-loathing, which is still a daily challenge for me.
2. Find people that you can trust and let them criticise your work directly. I have a couple of friends who read my drafts and tell me what they hate about them, and though I don’t ask them for advice particularly often, their opinions are far more valuable to me than those of the most respected and established critics. And remember – the only person you really need to please is yourself.
3. Read the 1-star reviews. Find your most beloved book on Goodreads or Amazon and read the 1-star reviews. Good times guaranteed. Here's a few for Ulysses.
I remember reading somewhere that [novelist] Flann O’Brien got a critical note regarding At Swim-Two-Birds, then a work-in-progress, and instead of following the advice, he inserted it into the book verbatim. I'm not sure if it’s true or not – I may’ve dreamt it up, but it works as a story, and that’s good enough for me.