Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Literary Versus Parental Criticism

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Literary Versus Parental Criticism

Nothing I've written has ever been reviewed in print. That will change next month, when Poison Shy comes out.

I have absolutely no idea how I will react to reading a critique of my novel, especially if the reviewer has more than a few negative things to say. Will I immediately launch into a counter-argument, shouting at my laptop screen like a lunatic? Or will I shrug and get back to working on my next project? Maybe I'll end up locking myself in the bathroom for days, weeping softly behind the shower curtain. Maybe I'll agree with everything the reviewer says, and scold myself accordingly with some light flagellation. Maybe I'll do something unexpected, like run to the nearest tattoo parlour and ask the friendly man with the needle to scrawl the word DUNCE across my forehead. There's really no way of knowing until it happens.

As harsh as literary critics can be, however, there's another type of review that frightens me, and that's the one that will be written on my mother's face.

That's not to say my mother isn't proud of me for writing a book. Through this whole process, she has been my most enthusiastic supporter. She knows I've written a dark, gritty novel with sex and murder in it. I've reminded her many times. I've also reminded her that the book is fictional. Everything in it is made up. She said she understands that. But I won't relax until she cracks the spine, reads what's actually on the page, and doesn't disown me.

I think my paranoia in this matter stems from an incident from my teenagehood. I'd written a short story about a young woman living at home for her first year of university. She is forced by her parents to move into a bedroom in the basement, so that her younger sister, who has epilepsy and is clearly the favoured child, can move into her old bedroom, where she can be more closely monitored. The young woman hates everything about living the basement -- the bugs, the smell, the darkness, the damp -- and as a result, she begins to misbehave in very troubling ways.

When I wrote this particular story, I was living in my parents' basement; but unlike my character, I loved it down there. I could stay up late and sleep all day, blast music and the TV, and I had a ton of privacy, which included my own separate entrance and bathroom. Best of all, I got to live there completely rent-free, provided I was still enrolled in school. I miss that basement even now, and think about it often.

One day I made the mistake of leaving the story on the coffee table in the upstairs living room. I came home from school and found my mother crying on the couch. She'd read the story. She thought I'd written it to vent my feelings. She assumed I hated living in the room she and my father spent thousands of dollars renovating, just for me. She wondered if I harboured a secret desire to light the house on fire, like the girl in the story.

I was mortified for many reasons -- that my mother had read my crappy story, that she was upset by it, that she'd assumed it reflected my own feelings in some way. I explained to her that I loved living in the basement. I'd taken my knowledge of basement-dwelling and applied it to a character who was completely unlike myself. I told her that's why I liked writing stories: to learn, to explore, to get into someone else's head.

She believed me, I hope. But to this day, I fret over my mother reading anything I've written. At the end of the day, her opinion of me matters far more than the opinion of any critic.

I won't even start on what my grandmother might think.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Stacey Madden

Stacey Madden holds a BA from the University of Toronto and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Guelph. He lives in Toronto. Poison Shy (ECW Press) is his first novel.

Go to Stacey Madden’s Author Page