The simple answer to the title question, if Steampunk has peaked in the US, is yes.
I’ll explain why I think so, but before I do that, let me throw a disclaimer out there: I feel like I more or less “have my finger on the pulse of Steampunk”, to use an awful cliche, but I haven’t done any specific research to back up this claim. So I may very well be wrong, and your differing opinion may be just as valid. However, lend me your ear (or your eye(s), at any rate) for a short time, and I’ll explain why I think Steampunk has peaked, and what that means.
There are a few reasons I think the way I do, though I’ll admit that the primary one is strictly a gut feeling. Without any hard numbers to back it up, what I can say is that it feels like Steampunk has reached its pinnacle of influence in the US, and I say that as someone who got involved back in 2006, when Steampunk was just beginning its rise to popularity. So I’ve watched it grow, and I’ve seen it change forms a few times as it developed.
What I see happening now is something that’s been happening all along, but it’s on a bigger scale now because we have a bigger audience: namely, people are getting tired of it.
Some people are getting tired of the paradigm of Steampunk and want to move away to other things, which is understandable; they like to change it up every now and then. Others, however, are getting tired of the ceaseless bickering that takes place in Steampunk online communities. Unfortunately, the bickering is driving people away twofold: it’s pushing away not only the people involved in the arguments, but the people who read them and think, “Wow, I’m not getting involved with this!”
Of course, we can’t simply not talk about things; that never works out. So it’s left us in this weird gray area where no one really knows what to do, or what to talk about, which makes literally everyone uncomfortable. And who wants to be involved in a movement that makes them uncomfortable? Other than masochists, that is!
In addition to that, the relatively poor quality of Steampunk book and movie titles has driven non-Steampunk audiences away from the genre. Sure, we have a handful of good writers in our corner (and a few particularly good anthologies), but precious few. As a result, many times a newcomer’s first impression of Steampunk is something like the recent Three Musketeers film, which was not only terrible, but also not a very good representation of Steampunk. Someone once asked me to recommend a good Steampunk movie to them, and I only-half-jokingly replied that a good Steampunk movie doesn’t exist.
I’m not sure if you know this, but I have it on good authority that most Steampunk fiction has been selling poorly, and thus the publishing industry is starting to move away from looking for Steampunk manuscripts. I mean, if you have a great Steampunk book, they’ll still print it, just like in any other genre, but the “push” to get Steampunk books out there seems to be over.
In the other corner of the Steampunk movement, we have conventions. For a few years, a new convention would open up every couple of months. The country was practically peppered with them, but now, not so much. Many cons are still going strong, but the rate at which new cons are opening has slowed, or possibly even stopped. That means that the need for Steampunk conventions is being met, meaning that we aren’t seeing the hordes of new Steampunks that many thought we’d get. Or perhaps we’ve already gotten them, and now we’re running low on recruits. Either way, it seems unlikely that the growth of Steampunk will resume, barring a great blockbuster Steampunk film (which I haven’t seen on the upcoming docket) or a runaway television hit (Lantern City? Are you actually happening?). Those sorts of things can always bring attention back, but I won’t be holding my breath.
Let me take a moment to clear something up: peaked and died are two different things. Steampunk may never actually die, because for many of the people involved, it’s a way of life. They’ll keep doing it until the day they die, because it’s who they are, and that’s great. Instead, I suspect that Steampunk will slowly lose popularity until it’s just one more genre of many, and no longer the favored child. So I’m not predicting doom and gloom; in fact, peaking may be the best thing to happen to Steampunk. It might mean that the people who are still here when the dust clears are the people who will actually work all of this nonsense out, and figure out a way to be inclusive, happy, and also thoughtful. Which is a difficult proposition, because thoughtfulness and happiness rarely go hand-in-hand!
There’s a recent comic about Nikola Tesla by The Oatmeal, and it’s been making the rounds on the internet. This comic essentially goes on at length about all the amazing things that Tesla invented, but were either credited to others or simply ignored.
For the most part, this is true. Tesla did get pretty screwed by Edison. Several times, in fact. However, the comic makes a big deal of how Tesla died penniless and insane, and also villifies Edison. Again, everything it says about Edison is true. He was certainly a magnificent bastard.
However, this comic which people have been spreading around really paints an unfair picture of the real life of Tesla and Edison.
First of all, Tesla’s worst enemy wasn’t Edison, it was himself. Tesla was a Grade A genius, but he paid a high price for it. In many ways, Tesla was like a real version of Sherlock Holmes; he traded high-functional, genius-level intellect for poor social skills and extreme eccentricity. Except that it eventually got to the point where his mental disabilities were so overpowering that they prevented him from accomplishing anything, whereas Holmes simply retired to be an apiarist (beekeeper).
Despite Tesla’s many inventions, as he got older he began to blur the line between fact and fantasy, and many of his later ‘inventions’ were never built. There remains to this day no proof that some of them were even possible, much less feasible. His failure to deliver on certain projects made him an unreliable investment, which is the real reason he wasn’t able to monetize his inventions later in life. Not to mention that the man was absolutely awful at managing money.
Second, Edison did a lot of good in addition to the awful things he did. Despite the comic’s claim that he wasn’t a scientist (he wasn’t, really) he most definitely was an inventor. Even if we eventually prove that every single one of his inventions was first made by someone else (which has frequently happened throughout history, I should add), we can still put him down as the inventor of the modern research laboratory.
We tend to look back and see technological progress as inevitable, but that really isn’t the case. In almost every single era, there are people who fight change. Do you know how long it took for the electro-magnetic telegraph to be adopted into use after its invention? Despite its immense practical value, it took nearly 30 years before people were willing to treat it as anything more than a curiosity. That’s because the optical telegraph already existed, and was ‘good enough’. This is far from an isolated incident; as a modern example, the first tablet computer was made twenty years ago, and yet it only now caught on.
The point is that technology doesn’t just need innovators, it needs champions. That’s the role that Thomas Edison played, and he played it very, very well. His talent was not just getting technologies adopted by the general public, but in monetizing them. Without his work, many of the inventions developed during that time may have languished in obscurity.
So the point of all of this is that Tesla was a deeply flawed genius, and Edison was an enormous bastard who did a lot of good in the world.
They’re both just people, for better or worse. Putting either of them on a pedestal is going to be problematic because neither of them are without blame for the way things turned out.
So honor Tesla for who he was, a man who overcame tremendous difficulties to invent amazing things, but don’t make him a martyr for the archetypal figure of the underdog.
It’s sad that the above quote is entirely useless. If you teach your children to question everything, what good will that realistically do them? I’ll tell you!
It will make them extremely frustrated, because our entire society, from the ground up, is predicated on people NOT questioning things. I’m not even talking about politics, here, I’m talking about your average day-to-day life.
You’re not supposed to ask questions in school. Sure, you can ask for clarifications of the material being taught to you, but if you start questioning that material? Not only are you slowing down the class so that everyone else gets behind, but it’s entirely possible that your teacher may not even be able to give you a satisfactory answer until you get to college, and sometimes not even then. The current school system simply isn’t set up to accommodate students who really want to learn, because a student who really wants to learn doesn’t just want to study individual subjects, they want to learn about everything.
You’re not supposed to ask questions at work. When you start a new job, there’s a tremendous pressure to simply DO the work. The more time your job spends training you, the less money they’re making. Everyone has their own job to do, and no one wants to take the time out of their day to answer your questions.
You’re not even supposed to ask questions at the doctor’s office or the hospital. The doctors are all overworked and literally don’t have time to sit and explain to you exactly what’s going on inside your body. Especially at the hospital, where you may only see a doctor for five minutes. And if you think of a question after the doctor has gone? Too bad. You probably won’t see him or her again until tomorrow.
The one place where it’s acceptable to ask questions is at home, with your parents. But what are their qualifications, and how much can you trust their answers? They may not be trained or schooled in order to provide the answers you want, but at least nowadays you can find most of the answers you seek on the internet. Even then, there’s no gatekeeper for that information, so how can you know if it’s true?
Sure, you may say, but what about in the sciences? They get paid to question everything, right?
Wrong! In fact, we’ve created such a climate of results-oriented research that people are often afraid to question established theories and papers. Most scientific journals aren’t interested in publishing research that simply reinforces established theories, or even worse, contradicts established theories. This creates a “chilling effect” in which scientists refrain from even doing those experiments since they know they won’t get published. And if you don’t get published, you can lose your job.
So where exactly is the place to question things, in our society? Where are these children who are being taught to question everything going to fit in?
Nowhere. They’re going to end up sad and frustrated, and THAT is sad and frustrating.
What do we do about it? Instead of just teaching your child to question everything, you have to be willing to take time out of your day to answer other people’s questions. We have to work to create a society that welcomes questions, so please teach your child to ask questions, but also teach them to answer them.
The renewed interest in Sherlock Holmes of late, due in part to the American film series starring Robert Downey, Jr. and also to the British television show Sherlock, has made me aware of exactly how little most people know of the actual character of Holmes as was written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Many of the people who are now “fans” of Holmes have, in fact, never read the original stories. That’s not an altogether new phenomenon, as films have been the primary source of mainstream Holmes-related knowledge since somewhere in the early 20th century. You know the line, “Elementary, my dear Watson!”? That was never said in the stories, but instead likely came from a 1929 film.
However, one area of misunderstanding has been perennially perpetuated, and that’s Holmes’s misogyny. It’s well-documented in the various Holmes stories that he doesn’t like women. The quotes in which he says negative things about them are nearly overwhelming. Doyle, known for his subtlety, was really trying to drive this point home. Here’s the most famous:
“Women are never to be entirely trusted—not the best of them.” -The Sign of Four
While most of the others are contextual and don’t make for easy quotability, Holmes is generally described as being very courteous and polite to women, but having no respect or understanding of them. He essentially considers them to be fundamentally irrational, and thus beyond the ken of his keenly rational mind.
At the time that the original Holmes stories were written, being a misogynist was more widely accepted in mainstream culture than it is today, but by no means was it considered ‘okay’. Doyle absolutely used misogyny as a way to show that Holmes was an unfeeling, monstrous machine of a man. Doyle even famously remarked once, “Holmes is as inhuman as a Babbage’s calculating machine and just about as likely to fall in love.”
And yet we’re presented with the problem of Irene Adler. Not only is her role in the Holmes universe contradictory to what we’ve come to expect in Holmes’s behavior, but she also appears in the very first non-novella story. In case anyone in the world is unfamiliar with the character of Irene Adler by now (since she appeared in both the American films and the British show), Adler is renowned as being the only woman to ever “beat” Sherlock Holmes, and she occupies a special place in his mind if not his heart as “the woman”.
Much has been made of her as a character over the years, and many men and women alike look at her as an excellent example of a strong female character. So much so that when the television show Sherlock portrayed her as falling in love with Holmes and needing to be rescued like a damsel in distress, the outcry was immense. The blogosphere (I love that word) lit on fire with people condemning the portrayal as sexist. Whether it was or not is beside the point for now, but let’s look at Adler’s character in the only story she appears in, “A Scandal in Bohemia”.
First of all, here’s the full quote in which Watson recounts how Holmes considers Adler to be “the” woman:
"To Sherlock Holmes she is always the woman. I have seldom heard him mention her under any other name. In his eyes she eclipses and predominates the whole of her sex. It was not that he felt any emotion akin to love for Irene Adler. All emotions, and that one particularly, were abhorrent to his cold, precise but admirably balanced mind. He was, I take it, the most perfect reasoning and observing machine that the world has seen…. And yet there was but one woman to him, and that woman was the late Irene Adler, of dubious and questionable memory."
There’s a lot going on in this quote, but the very first thing you may notice is that the quote specifically mentions that Holmes doesn’t love her. While Watson could in many ways be considered an unreliable narrator, given the meta-textual quote from Doyle that I mentioned earlier, I think it’s safe to assume that this was intended to be the truth. This is important, because both recent film versions of Holmes have in some way had a relationship with Adler.
Second, Adler has a reputation for “outsmarting” Holmes, or of beating him at his own game. Because of this, an unreasonable expectation has arisen about Adler’s capabilities. The fact of the matter is that we don’t really see much of her capabilities in the story. Let’s take a look at her accomplishments in the original text:
That’s it. That’s the whole story.
Now let’s examine it.
First of all, it’s never made entirely clear why she’s trying to ruin the King’s marriage. There are vague allusions to her being spiteful and not wanting the King to be with anyone else, or something. It’s pretty confusing, and Holmes doesn’t seem to bat an eye at this. This sort of undermines the idea that Adler is somehow “better” than Holmes, or at the very least, not an emotional, irrational woman. Though there’s nothing to say that you can’t be emotional, irrational, and also extremely smart, so let’s move on.
Second, when you look at the plot of the story, the entire way in which Adler “beats” Holmes is that she recognizes him. That’s it. The story hinges on Holmes returning to her house and retrieving the picture from where he successfully divined its location, but when he returns, she’s gone and has taken the picture with her. This is due only to the fact that she successfully recognized Holmes while in disguise. While she did quickly dress up as a man to follow him in order to make sure that it was him, it’s made clear that she has worked in theatre, so dressing up in costumes is in her line of work. Not to mention that working in theatre may have made her more likely to recognize people in disguise.
So, the story hinges on Adler recognizing Holmes. How big of a feat is that, really? Well, much is made of Holmes’s ability to disguise himself. He does this in many stories, and even fools Watson on occasion. Watson, unlike the bumbling idiot he is sometimes portrayed as, is a competent guy in the stories, so it’s not an entirely unimpressive feat.
However, remember that Holmes appeared to Adler twice in one day, in two different disguises. First as an out-of-work groom who was the witness at her wedding, and then once as a wounded priest. In both cases, she would have gotten a good look at him. So far as I can recall, in the entire canon of Holmes stories, he never again appears to the same person in two different disguises, and he definitely doesn’t do it in the same day. Even an ordinary person may have a weird sense of deja vu when interacting with the same person twice, albeit in disguise both times.
That she puts on men’s clothing and then follows him is quick thinking, but given that she was already on alert from the King having sent men to ransack her house twice, it’s safe to assume that she might be slightly paranoid.
What I’m trying to get at with all of this is that Irene Adler wasn’t really anything special according to the text. She’s apparently vindictive (threatened the King), of average intelligence (gave away the picture’s location), and quick-thinking (recognized Holmes and followed him).
But if Irene Adler wasn’t anything special, how did she elude Holmes?
The answer is simple, and it also explains why this story appears first among the short stories: Holmes messed up. He underestimated her because of his misogyny, and assumed that she wouldn’t recognize him when he disguised himself for the second time.
Doyle designed Holmes to be the perfect analytical machine, capable of inferring vast amounts of information from only tiny details, and all of his personality flaws are made to enhance that capacity. He’s rude, over-dramatic, self-indulgent, and some would argue sociopathic, but all of those things in some way contribute toward making him a better crime-solver. Except for his misogyny, which in his very first regular case contributes to his failure. This, I believe, was a sly nod and wink from Doyle, who was distancing himself as an author from the views of his character, as if to say, “Look, Holmes hates women, and look where that got him.” This was actually a subtle jibe at misogynists.
So while the story both opens and closes with Irene Adler, “A Scandal in Bohemia” is, like all Holmes stories, really about Sherlock Holmes. It’s an important story for feminism not because Adler was really a strong female character who beat a strong male character, but because Doyle was implying that Holmes would be a better man if he respected women’s abilities. It may not exactly be a positive role model, but at the same time, it’s certainly better than nothing. So when you watch adaptations of Holmes stories, remember that Adler was both more and less than a romance and an equal: she was an object lesson in what happens to those who underestimate women.
I’m a graduate student in English Literature, and for the past several years that I’ve been involved in graduate-level literature scholarship I’ve become hyper-aware of what people say about studying literature. The sad fact is that I see lots of people saying disparaging things about lit studies, and about scholarship in general. The sad part isn’t that they say things like that; they’re allowed to hate it or be critical of it. The sad part is that they don’t understand the issue well enough to truly judge. So I’m going to attempt to explain why those things are important, and why they’re not stupid.
You study literature, right?
Yes, we do, but we also do a whole lot more than that. In fact, as the state of the larger field of critical analysis has grown and developed, we’ve come to realize that (in the words of critical theorist Jacques Derrida) everything is a text. The mouse under your hand right now was created by a person (or people) who wanted to imbue it with both a function and a form, and that conscious effort to create an object also creates a text that can be both read and evaluated. For example, is your mouse ergonomic, or is it just rounded? Is it a bright or subdued color? What do those things say about the mouse itself, and where does the mouse fit into both the chronology and development of mice? Further, what does that mouse say about us as a society, and what does it mean that we developed computer interfaces in the form of the mouse and keyboard?
There’s nearly a never-ending well of questions that can be asked, and as we try to answer them, we learn more about the human condition, and about what it means to be human.
Wait, hold on. What about my high school teacher who made all these sweeping generalizations about what the author of Moby Dick was thinking about when he wrote it?
Yeah, I know, most people hated that. I’ve heard all sorts of complaints about how their high school teacher would make ridiculous lessons about how the repetition of the color blue in a story meant that the author was depressed rather than just, say, a person who liked the color blue.
That’s not really indicative of what we do when we study literature. First of all, the idea of reading a text as an insight into the author’s subconscious has largely fallen out of fashion, and quite a long time ago, at that. We still do it, but that’s only one type of analysis out of many. Second, while we all love high school teachers for making the ultimate sacrifice and teaching teenage kids, the vast majority of them never went to graduate school. Some of them didn’t even go to college for the subject they’re teaching, but instead got a degree in education with a minor in some other subject. So those teachers who told you about the color blue in high school? Yeah, they may never have read any real literature scholarship or theory in their lives. And there’s the other problem that even if they did at one point, there’s no requirement that they stay on top of it once they begin teaching. So they may have been teaching what they learned twenty years ago, which has become significantly out of date.
Way to render my entire high school career meaningless.
Sorry. High school does give you a good basic knowledge of things, but there’s just no way for them to really give you a fair understanding of everything, given how underpaid and underappreciated they are. If we paid teachers like we pay athletes, I guarantee you that you’d come out of high school up-to-date on the latest scholarship.
But why do we care about learning about humanity and all of that stuff?
Well, it’s important for a variety of reasons. Human beings are on a constant quest to understand ourselves. That’s why those stupid quizzes make the rounds on the internet, because we have some silly belief that a “What Harry Potter Character Are You?” quiz will actually tell you more about yourself. It may have something to do with our brains being hard-wired to see patterns, which, while it makes us great at identifying faces, sometimes also makes us see things that aren’t there. Or it may have nothing to do with that at all.
However, the more we know about ourselves, the better we can become. It’s like science, but for culture. Science can make you a pair of cybernetic legs, but it can’t teach you how to be happy, or how to come to terms with the death of a loved one.
How does something like a feminist reading of Shakespeare teach people how to be happy?
Well, it doesn’t, directly. But think about how many different scientists, working on unrelated things, it will take to first develop and then build a pair of cybernetic legs. That’s sort of what we’re doing by working on all of these things: we’re hoping that each little step that we make in seemingly-unrelated or unimportant fields will in some way lead to a better understanding of human nature, which will in turn make people happier and better-understood.
Literature scholarship is really an attempt to find some deeper truth about life, and isn’t that what we all do? Don’t we spend most of our lives trying to figure out why we’re here, and what it’s all for? While I doubt that anyone will ever definitively answer that question, each time we do something like a feminist reading of Moby Dick, or a Marxist critique of Faulkner, we try to better understand not just those works, but everything that I’ve mentioned in this article. Truth, happiness, life, etc. All of those things that science can’t answer.
You’re just using me for a Socratic Dialogue, aren’t you?
Damn, am I that transparent? Well, Socrates was a philosopher, and he greatly contributed to our understanding of the world at large, much like we try to do in Lit Studies. In fact, we combine a whole lot of different disciplines in what we do because they help us see the bigger picture. For example, we use some philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, and many more.
How in the world do you justify calling that “literature”?
Yeah, you got me. Literature actually isn’t a very good name for what we do, and the literature department of colleges around the country (if not the world) are right now trying to deal with this very crisis of identity. See, it all started out fine and dandy by exclusively studying literature. At first, so-called “literature” programs only studied Greek and Roman texts, and it was required that students learn Greek, Latin, or both. In fact, it was only during this century that the works of William Shakespeare started being taught in literature classes, despite the fact that they were written four centuries ago.
In other words, the study of literature has gotten progressively larger, and has dealt with progressively newer texts. Eventually, as I quoted earlier, Derrida declared that everything was a text, and while we do primarily concern ourselves with actual literature, it’s becoming more and more common to see scholarship on graphic novels, television shows, and films, if not computer mice and desk chairs. However, the tools that we use to evaluate those books and movies are the same tools that we can use to evaluate the aforementioned mice and chairs.
Come on, isn’t this really just a way for you “educated” folks to feel superior to everyone else?
No, that’s just an extra perk.
Seriously, though, there are people in every field who use their skill/knowledge/breeding/whatever to lord over other people. So yes, I’m sure that there are some people in Literature Studies who use their powers for evil rather than good, but that’s not what the whole field is about.
I promise that we’re just trying to help people understand themselves and each other!
I hate you anyway.
I’m sorry. =(
Steampunk is Victorian Science Fiction, right? Or at the very least, it draws upon the science fiction written during that era as its inspiration.
Yeah, I know, when someone asks something like that at the beginning of an article, it’s always a trick question.
Steampunk is about brass and leather and whatnot, but above all else, it’s about steam power. After all, steam is in the name, isn’t it? Everyone knows that steam power was used during the Victorian era, and that the 19th century was when the steam engine achieved massive commercial and popular success even if it had first been invented thousands of years before.
We all take for granted the ‘steam’ in ‘Steampunk’ because we’re looking backwards in time. We already know what the Victorian era was like, and we know how things turned out. We know that electricity wasn’t really used commercially until the 20th century. So clearly all of the science fiction of the Victorian era used steam power.
Let’s take a look at some of the so-called inspirations for Steampunk and see what we find, shall we?
The very first example of modern science fiction was Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. This is often cited as being an inspiration for Steampunk. And yet… There’s no steam. None. The ‘futuristic’ technology of the book is electricity (specifically galvanism), not steam. Hold on to your butts, because you’re about to start seeing a trend.
Here are some other books that feature zero or almost zero steam power:
Where, then, is all of the steam power in the things that Steampunk is based on? Well, nowhere. Only one piece of Victorian Science Fiction featuring steam springs to mind, and that’s Jules Verne’s The Steam House, which features a steam-powered elephant that pulls a house around. That’s it. Seriously.
Any student of history can tell you that research and development into using electricity had been underway for hundreds of years by the time the Victorian era came around, and that in the latter half of the 19th century, electricity helped drive the second Industrial Revolution. In other words, the end of the Victorian era was all about electricity, not steam.
If anyone didn’t buy my earlier argument that Steampunk isn’t really about the Victorian era, I should hope that you do now.
That said, I should clarify that when I said that the steam power of Steampunk came from nowhere, what I meant is that it didn’t come from the 19th century. It’s something that we’ve imposed upon them from our time, because electricity is too much a part of our lives today. Machinery powered by electricity is all around us, and Steampunk just wouldn’t be any fun without steam. Additionally, we picture the Victorian era a certain way based on its portrayal in films, and we’re playing with what we think the Victorian era was like, not what it was actually like.
That’s why it’s important to realize that Steampunk is based more on the films of the 50’s and 60’s that were, in turn, based on the books of the Victorian era, rather than on those books themselves. The films would occasionally have steam-powered machinery in the background, or in a lab, or whathaveyou, but those things never appeared in the original books that they were based on. As a result, the idea of steam-based technology appearing in those books became reified as time passed and more and more people simply saw the movies (or just heard a friend talk about them) instead of reading the books. Even in the movies, steam power appears infrequently, and yet the “Victorian Science Fiction = steam power” paradigm has thoroughly ingrained itself into our cultural zeitgeist, and thus into Steampunk.
That’s why I cite “The Wild Wild West” television show as the beginning of Steampunk, because it was the first example of science fiction that actually used steam power for some of its ridiculous gadgets rather than electricity or some other futuristic power source.
The fact that Steampunk is based on a cultural misconception, my friends, is our dirty little secret.
If you’re like me, you’ve frequently seen people get their feelings hurt on the internet. In fact, it’s such a common occurrence that all sorts of words have been created to describe the process, my favorite of which is ‘butthurt’.
One of the most tragic ways in which people end up getting hurt is when they post an original creation on the internet for others to appreciate, and it gets torn to shreds by harsh critics who have no personal stake in being considerate to strangers. There are many sides to this problem, and all of them have some degree of merit. For example, some people suggest that you shouldn’t post something to the internet without understanding that it may receive negative feedback, while others suggest that online critics should learn to be more constructive and considerate.
Everyone wants to be praised for their work. It’s the extremely rare individual who creates things and doesn’t care how they’re received. I’ve seen mass-market, award-winning authors break down in tears because of a bad review, so it’s not just the mark of an amateur. However, in the case of said award-winning authors, they can console themselves with the piles of money that they should (but don’t) have, and with all of the other people out there who think their work is great. The average person on the internet has no such recourse, and may even give up their art entirely based on too much harsh criticism.
Making someone give up their work isn’t what criticism is about. What it’s about is giving people the feedback they need to get better at their craft. At least, ideally.
In reality, many people don’t understand the difference between criticism of a work of art and criticism of a person. And that’s people on both sides of the issue, critics and artists alike. I’ve seen many artists get personally offended by legitimate criticism of something they’ve created, and I’ve seen many critics cross the line and start criticizing the artist rather than the art.
Regardless of whose fault it is, this situation still arises every day, if not every few minutes.
So artists, here’s a list of things that will help you deal with it:
1. No one can ‘make’ you feel bad. They can say nasty things, or even do nasty things, and the only part of that process that you can control is how you respond to it. It may feel like your response to negativity is ‘natural’ or out of your control, but it isn’t either of those things, I assure you. The way that we respond to stimuli is a thoroughly learned behavior, and you CAN control it. It’s easier said than done, of course, but it’s a good first step toward developing a thicker skin.
2. Anything that you create, no matter how excited or proud of it you are, is flawed. ”Perfect” works of art just don’t exist because their value is inherently subjective. Find me a single work of art in the entire world that everyone thinks is perfect, and I’ll eat my hat. I’m serious, I will literally eat my hat. People who are far more talented than you, and far more successful than you, have been torn to shreds over their work many times; even people who you hold in historically high regard, like Shakespeare.
If people like William Shakespeare are at the mercy of bad reviews and nasty comments, what hope do you have? Best-selling novels, blockbuster films, and classical works of art have all garnered their share of criticism over the years.
3. You are not your work! I can’t possibly stress this enough. If someone insults your work, they are not insulting you; they probably don’t even know you well enough to make a real judgment about you one way or the other. People are fully capable of both liking you as a person, and disliking your work, and that’s okay! Not everyone has to like both, though it’s probably best if your significant other does. Still, it’s incredibly important to realize that even if you feel like it is, your work is not a part of you. I know you’ve worked very hard on it, and have labored and put your heart and soul into it, but the people who see/read/hear/whatever it don’t know that. They can’t tell how much of yourself you’ve put into your work, and you can’t expect them to treat your work nicely just because you tried really hard.
4. Find a balance between accepting and ignoring criticism. This is a hard thing to do, because it’s really easy to go too far to one side and either listen to too much criticism, or not enough. That’s a balance that you’ll have to strike for yourself, but if more than one person has the same criticism of your art/book/costume/sculpture, there’s probably something to it. Bear in mind that art is subjective, and if several people see your sculpture of a nude woman and think it looks like a monkey and an octopus having sex, it’s probably not because they’re ‘just not getting it’, but because you somehow failed to express yourself properly through your art. There’s always going to be that one weirdo who sees monkey/octopus sex in everything, but when you start seeing trends, that’s when to listen.
5. Always thank people who have offered feedback (provided that you’ve asked for it), even if it’s really negative. That person took time out of their day to comment on your piece of art, and they didn’t have to. Maybe they were motivated to just be a jerk to someone on the internet, or maybe they genuinely wanted to help you refine your art; there’s no real way to know, which is why you should thank them anyway. If someone was being a jerk, you’ll be the bigger person, and if someone was being nice, they’ll really appreciate it. Above all, don’t argue with someone who has expressed their opinion on your work. It’s their opinion, and they’re allowed to have it. Additionally, you’re almost never going to convince someone to like your work by arguing with them, so it doesn’t even serve a purpose. You can certainly explain your work to them, because that may help them understand and appreciate it, but don’t do it defensively or argumentatively. A simple ‘thank you for your comments’ will suffice, though it’s always nice to see a thoughtful consideration of the criticisms that were brought up.
6. Positive feedback is useless. I’m not talking about positive reviews, those are great because they convince other people to see/read/listen/buy/whatever your work. I’m talking about people who leave comments on your post with things like, “I love this!” or “Wow, this is great!”. While it may make you feel good and let you fall asleep with a smile on your face, it won’t help you become a better artist. Even comments like “I thought the third sentence in the last paragraph was awesome!” are useless, because of course YOU thought it was awesome… You wrote it!
Generally speaking, people will simply accept things that they think are good. Since you’ve presumably made this work of art according to your own artistic vision, garnering no negative comments on certain parts of it probably means that you should just keep doing things the way that you are.
Negative criticism is the best way for you to really get a feel for how people have received your work, and it’s the only way that you’ll really be able to grow as an artist. Look at negative criticism as having done you a favor by providing you with ways to improve your work. It may or may not help you to think, “Now I have to make it even better than before, so that X, Y, or Z critics will like it!” I don’t think that creating things for the approval of critics is necessarily the best tack, but hey, whatever works, right? Better to turn those negative reviews into the fuel that powers you to continue on than to quit. Which leads to our next, and last, point…
7. Don’t ever stop creating. Most people who create things are driven to do so because it satisfies some internal ‘itch’, or desire. No matter how negative someone else is, don’t ever let them take away your faith in yourself. The world is a big place, and there’s space for many different artistic visions. Your talent may be small and weak like the flame of a tea candle, but with the proper nourishment, you can grow it into a sizable campfire; that nourishment is your perseverance, not the praise of others. Have faith in yourself, not in your work, and you’ll continue to be able to grow as an artist.