We’ve all come across this metaphor. It’s a cry of ownership, a plea for kindness, a go-to excuse for displays of hurt feelings and bad behaviour at negative reviews. “My book is my baby! I love it! What you say about my book hurts me!”
This metaphor is of course very easy to mock. Thus: I don’t put my baby up for sale on Amazon; I don’t think a poorly baby can be made better by cutting 20% of its length; it is not good practice to put a misbehaving baby in a drawer and forget about it for six months. Et cetera. You can entertain yourself with this on Twitter for hours. But there is a serious reason why this is a bad metaphor, which is worth looking at in depth.
Consider what the ‘book as baby’ metaphor conveys: you create a thing, you love it, and you feel deeply protective of it. The metaphor holds up fine for the first two points with a book. You conceived the idea of a book, gestated it at some cost to yourself, brought it into the world with hard work; hopefully you’re pretty proud of the end result.
The problem is point three, the protectiveness.
The thing about a human baby is that it is incredibly, frighteningly helpless. You can’t even pick them up at first without cradling their oversized heads in case their necks snap. Drop it, shake it, hit it, and it could die right there. Babies survive only because they have adult defenders. We are wired to protect them: most people feel an incredible repulsion at the idea of harming any baby, and when you actually bond with one, you will put its existence above your own and, yes, defend it to the hilt from the least insult. Because if you are cruel about my baby, there is an outside chance you might be cruel to my baby, and before I let that happen I will rip off your arm and beat you to death with the wet end. That’s parental protectiveness at work, and it’s necessary because babies are so very easy to hurt.
Whereas, to state the glaringly, gibberingly obvious: You can’t hurt books.
A book isn’t a human baby, it’s a crocodile. It crawls out of the shell fully formed, mobile, independent, and ready to bite things. You should give it a helpful nudge towards the water with marketing, sure. But a protection response is as unnecessary and stupid as if you picked up a baby crocodile and tried to give it a nurturing cuddle, or maybe breastfeed. (Don’t do that.) A bad review may feel like someone throwing mud at your baby, which is just one step away from throwing rocks, PARENTAL MURDER DEATH KILL RESPONSE TRIGGERED. But actually they’re throwing mud at a crocodile ambling by. And the crocodile doesn’t give a toss.
Someone may give your book one star. They may quote it unfairly or make inaccurate assessments. They may do a review on Goodreads with animated gifs to indicate how much they don’t like it. But the book continues to exist, undented by that dislike. The book will not carry the review with it as a bleeding wound, it will not have its final chapter leeched away by the power of negative criticism. A hypersensitive parent of a baby may perceive an insult as a threat, and react accordingly. But an insult to a book isn’t a threat, and carries no risk of harm. It’s just a bad review.
You know who can kill your baby crocodile? You, the author. You can create a crappy three-legged crocodile in the first place. You can kill your crocodile before it leaves the egg by refusing to take editorial advice that might change the way your baby looks. (It looks like a goddamn crocodile. Get over it.) And you can destroy it when it’s out by screaming, “DON’T YOU DARE HURT MY PRECIOUS BABY YOU BITCH I WILL CUT YOU,” at the first person to chuck a handful of mud, until you’ve attracted a full-on stone-throwing retaliatory mob. (Because if you don’t like your book being attacked, well, reviewers don’t much like their reviews being attacked either, and still less a personal assault.)
You cannot and should not try to curate every reader’s response to your book. It’s published, you launched it, now it’s going to have to cope for itself out there in the swamp. Maybe it will thrive, maybe it won’t, but that’s its problem because it is not your baby, and your responsibility for nurturing ended at the point you hit ‘publish’. Go forth, little crocodile! Fly! (Or whatever, I’m not a naturalist.)
And this is why I never want to see ‘My books are my babies’ again. Because it’s a fundamentally inaccurate metaphor that conveys exactly the wrong message about what the author’s relationship to a published work should be.
Just let it go, lay some more eggs, and hope at least one of them grows.
KJ Charles is a freelance editor and metaphorical crocodile farmer. Her most recent release is Jackdaw, published by Samhain. Think of England won Best LGBT Romance in the All About Romance 2015 Readers Poll.
This post is not an endorsement of Lake Placid, from which the above still is taken. Nothing is an endorsement of Lake Placid.
Flying crocodile by MCA Hogarth, gloriously!
Again with the common sense. By the time you’re through, you’ll have disabused all the literary delusions writers cling to, forcing us to deal with (gasp) reality.
KJ, I’m a first time poster on your blog. But This! What you and livrancourt had to say! Well done! Let’s hope common sense prevails, though I doubt it. Twitter is blowing up in N.A., for it seems some published authors have none.
Oh good lord, that business. I despair. Thanks for joining in and hello!
I honestly think I love you.
Forget Jayne, I KNOW I love you.
Oh god, i used that term today… with irony yes… but hangs my head in shame…
Irony is always welcome. And sarcasm.
“Just let it go, lay some more eggs, and hope at least one of them grows.”
I love this so much. ❤
The book is only a baby at the point it’s still a tiny fragile idea that needs nurturing and help to grow and be the best it can be. The day it goes out into the world it better be ready, because it’s gotta fend for itself.
Lake Placid is an ideal movie to watch when you can’t sleep. Because you’ll very soon choose to knock yourself unconscious rather than suffer any more of it.
You may have found the sole purpose for that movie’s existence.
I’ve always said my books aren’t my babies because I actually like having books in my house. 😀
But seriously, I’ve never looked at it in quite this way before – the fact you don’t need to protect a book once you’ve “given birth to” it. How many times have we seen authors go apeshit over a review they perceive as negative? It’s just not necessary because the book they wrote still exists. A review does not change the text of the book reviewed.
You’ve given me lots to think about. 🙂
One of my touchstones, articles of faith even, is the Bulgakov line: manuscripts don’t burn. I could have saved quite a lot of words just saying that. (Also: He wrote that while being silenced by the power of the Soviet state. Let’s not get too heated about reviews, you know?)
Hi! I’m sorry for butting in and starting with an offtopic question (especially as my first post here), it’s just Bulgakov, you know. I remember reading in here somewhere that Master and Margarita is one of your favourite books ever, K.J., and I was wondering which translation of it is the best in your opinion? I’m really curious to see how some of my favourite lines look like in English if I ever get that chance.
Back on topic, it never ceases to amaze me how thin is our skin when it comes to our creations. I feel like it should be taught in school better or something. I mean, I remember at least several children books that spoke of the importance of being able to see yourself from other person’s perspective but no books about being able to see the fruit of your soul’s labors from other person’s perspective. I’m just a translator and yet, when I receive critical comments about my work, often my first instinctual responce is to lash out. Now, I don’t act on it but it’s really… annoying how much time it takes to calm down and have an unbiased (as unbiased as you can, at least) look on your own creation.
Still, after reading about yet another author-related scandal, I sometimes wish their contracts had a clause stating that, as a published author, you’re now expected to show a certain amount of dignity.
Oooh. Well I don’t speak Russian of course, but I prefer the Michael Glenny translation. I’ve read three different ones, which is fascinating in itself, but the Glenny is the best written in English. The Penguin Classics version (Pevear/Volokhonsky) is much less readable but has a much more political slant. I’d love to know which was the more accurate to the original.
Oooh. Well I don’t speak Russian of course, but I prefer the Michael Glenny translation. I’ve read three different ones, which is fascinating in itself, but the Glenny is the best written in English. The Penguin Classics version (Pevear/Volokhonsky) is much more political. I’d love to know which one is truer to the book. (Don’t say ‘only’ a translator, it’s an astounding skill, and a remarkable art.)
And, I meant to add, if they could teach the art of responding healthily to criticism in school the entire world would be in better shape. It doesn’t seem to come installed as standard in humans.
Thank you! I’ll look and promise to share my impressions about both translations if I find them.
You know, it used to kind of bother me how everyone was so down on that “baby” phrase; I sort of sympathized with it, at first, basically because of the first two parts of the analogy you describe. But you’re right, of course, you can’t hurt a book.
So I think there’s actually something else behind the sensitivity & protectiveness. Which is: Your book (or anything you write) is not your child; it’s you. It varies based on what you write, but at minimum it reflects your skills, knowledge, thoughts, & judgment. And more personal work may reflect personality, taste, hopes, fears, beliefs, hurts, what you hold dear, maybe even some real life experiences. So, when someone disses a thing you wrote, in a sense they are dissing you.
I mean, it’s hardly limited to books. Last year a stranger’s subtweet, containing the word “ridiculous” about a comment I’d left messed me up for a couple of days. Worrying what I’d said was so unworthy of serious consideration that it was, indeed, laughable.
And let’s face it, we can be hurt if someone makes fun of what we’re wearing, for gosh sakes. I can, at least. And usually that’s not even something we created. But it is something we chose. So it reflects our taste & judgment. So if someone says: “Oh dear god, did you see that thing she’s wearing?” it’s not the dress that hurts, it’s us.
I think it’s the same with books. And I don’t think it’s thin skinned to be hurt by that, I think it’s just human. But it’s also inevitable it’ll happen. Just as everyone doesn’t like you, everyone won’t like your book either. So what authors (who, unlike books, don’t have crocodile hides) need to protect, is not the book, but themselves. By not reading their reviews. Exactly as you & some other authors I know so wisely choose to do.
But sometimes I think we fans & friends of authors should do the same. I may be an extreme case, but I’ve read reviews that have reduced me to tears & fury. Reviewers have every right to say what they think as they see fit, but reading that about a friend’s &/or admired author’s book can be as painful as listening to someone bash the person in conversation. Luckily I’ve had enough sense to run a million miles away & not comment in such cases. But it can be a huge temptation to do so. And there are so many ways for that to go bad.
Makes me think maybe it’s best to just ban myself from looking at those negative reviews, just as many authors do, & for the same reasons: It serves little purpose & isn’t worth the pain.
PS: If anyone is gonna subtweet about me for the appalling length of this comment, please don’t tell me 😉
I have got three paragraphs into review-destroying rebuttals on GR (not of my own books) before deleting them, so I do know that rage! And you’re right: the only answer is to stay away if you find it upsetting.
I think I might find it easier to be dispassionate about my work because I’ve been an editor so long. I have to separate book from author, and to help authors do that for themselves, so I have had a head start in doing it for my own work and understanding that if someone 1*s my book that is not a reflection on me, or even proof that, as I suspected, I’m a talentless schlub. It’s just an opinion.
Thanks. Yes, maybe it takes practice. I think the 1* wouldn’t bother me so much, except it lures you to read the actual words, reasons for the 1* 😛
And sorry if this looks like a new comment. It’s just my reply to yours 🙂
So breastfeeding flying crocodiles is bad?
It’s contraindicated by the data so far, yes.
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A few years ago I managed to get amazon to take down a review of one of my children’s books on bullying, although at first they appeared to find nothing offensive in the phrase ‘my sister’s pansy son’ or the fact that it called victims ‘losers’ and exhorted them to smoke behind the bike shed with the cool kids. More recently, I asked amazon.com to remove a review of the same book which says it recommends victims hit back, which might be all right in the UK etc. Obviously, it says no such thing, and as a kind of expert in the field I think this assertion slanders me. amazon don’t agree, and I’ve broken my usual rule and commented on the review, simply setting the record straight, tho I don’t think anyone ever clicks through to the comments. It’s not because my books’s my baby though – I don’t mind at all if some readers don’t like my books – but having said that, I completely love it that some do!
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