For the Writers: Dealing with Criticism
Let's face it, one of the hardest things any artist will deal with once they've put heart, soul, and years of effort on public display, is watching helpless while they and their work are publicly torn down, mocked, and criticized by people who don't know them but psychoanalyze as if they do, who ascribe motive and meaning to things that don't exist, and who laugh at "ineptitude" in a work that the mocker could never create. This hurts! Though there's never been much sympathy for those on the receiving end.
Artists who dare publicly whimper in the face of such browbeating find themselves chided with variants of "suck it up," and "you should have expected that," and, "if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." Heartless cliché's aside, critics have been the bane of the creative soul ever since man started scratching out art on the cave walls.
I think most readers, having read or even written book reviews, are aware of these dynamics on a tangential level. That awareness acts as a sort of healthy immune response when reader turns into writer, and writer's first work sees print, and then writer experiences for the first time what it's like to be the target of such a public tar-and-feathering. But me, I was horrifically clueless--I'd never even read an online book review--which is to say I had absolutely no concept of the verbal sewage that existed in the world of anonymity, or the stream of vitriol that would soon be spewed in my direction under the guise of book reviews. As a result, I think I might have contracted about the worst case of Negative-Review Shock (NRS) in existence.
It might be difficult for some people to imagine how, with the considerable amount of really good, I mean just amazingly fantastic press and reviews my work received, I could have possibly been affected by any of the negativity at all. Why not ignore it and focus on the positive? Why indeed. I'm human, okay? I bleed red just like you do. And maybe I'm a little bit of an emotional wimp.
But at the same time, I also know I'm not the only one who will ever experience this. Maybe some of what I learned while digging back to sanity can be of benefit to others, so this entry is written for every creative soul who's gone through, is going through, or will go through a case of Negative-Review Shock of their own.
First, I think we can all agree that everyone is entitled to opinions, personal taste, and preferences, and that there's no piece of work--not even literary masterpieces--that appeal to everyone. We're all grown-ups here, and we get that. And I think we can also agree that intelligent criticism, while never enjoyable, is *necessary*, because it's very difficult to improve without it. So really, when we talk about NRS, we're not talking about thoughtful opinions even if they hurt, we're talking about snark, and when motives and bias are nastily projected onto the author, and the unnecessary evisceration that takes pleasure in humiliation because it makes the commentator look oh so cool and funny and clever at your expense--the type of negativity that makes you say, "Okay, I get it, everything I do sucks, but do you have to be so *mean* about it all?"
When this happens, you will learn, Dear Artist, if, woe be you, you, like me, end up crying on a safe shoulder while in the throes of NRS heartsick, that the common cure dished out by those who love you (after hugs and encouragement, and being incredibly long-suffering and patient) is the sage advice that haters are going to hate and you've just got to ignore them. This sounds good. It sounds helpful. But because anyone who hasn't experienced some version of NRS really has no idea what it's like, it's actually not. No, not helpful at all. If it really was that easy, don't they think you would have already done it?
They'll also tell you that if reviews are upsetting you so much, you should just stop reading them. As if that's even possible what with the way social media works and how the reviews hunt you down even if you're one of the rare few who doesn't at least take a peek now and then--because, let's face it, what cook spends two days preparing Christmas dinner and then walks out when the food is served and never wants to hear a word from those who eat--and as an author, you're that cook, except you've been in the kitchen for years--and even if you're a weird cook and try to avoid hearing about the labor of love you've slaved over, sometimes, with the way our world is so interconnected it's just impossible to avoid stumbling across opinions and then, just like a train wreck, you don't want to watch but you can't help yourself.
Yes, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts. And it's a very real hurt, down to your core sense of self. You need to know that what you're feeling is a very natural response, and contrary to what seems to be expected of you, you shouldn't shut it down, or bury it, or suck it up and pretend to be brave and strong and that you haven't been mortally wounded. What’s more, you have permission to wallow if you need to, but most of all to acknowledge the sense of helplessness that comes from having been publicly judged and misunderstood, from having your voice taken away, and feeling bullied and punished. Yes, yes, acknowledge that you wish you could defend yourself against the vindictiveness, wish you could be heard, and if your thoughts and feelings happen to turn darker, well, acknowledge those, too. Acknowledge them all until you can put words to the hurt. Feel it completely and cry it out (or whatever your preferred method of emotional expression might be--though you might want to try avoiding anything that'll get you arrested) until you are all feeled out. Why? Because it's impossible to work through something if every time it begs for attention you squelch it. When you suppress the hurt and pretend it doesn't exist, it only hurts more in the long run and that unhealed wound re-opens every time another round of even mild negativity comes your way.
You're probably going to have to silence that very mature adult part of you that looks condescendingly down in judgment of your pathetic weakness, snootily asking how you've fallen so low that you now let strangers with no lives have even a smidgen of control over yours. You know that voice? Yeah, just shut that sucker up. Be angry and depressed and rant and cry until there's no more left, but what you absolutely don't want to do is raise these thoughts and feelings in a public setting until *after* you've worked through them. Trust me on this: while you're in the midst of this emotional roil, your thinking brain has gone on vacation, and no matter how right and justified you might feel in lashing out publicly, you'll want to keep your venting close to home.
The second thing you should know is that although the online spewing might not get better, it--as in life and everything--does get better. Your first case of NRS will be the worst. If you contract it again, the symptoms will be milder, and after that, milder still. Eventually you’ll find that the online vitriol just makes you sad for the people dishing it out. But until then, until then...
Here’s the third thing you need to know: The wounded feeling part of you is naturally egocentric and has a tendency to interpret nameless, faceless judgments as if they'd been pronounced by better, smarter, more respected versions of people just like you. This is a really important concept so bear with me as I beat this drum harder:
It is a natural human response to filter the world through a self-based viewpoint. Everyone does it. This means that unless there's some overriding evidence to the contrary such as knowing the person, you'll react to perceived attacks as if they have come from an idealized version of someone like you: someone better educated (sometimes they even write as if they are) who does their research before trying to pass off opinion as verified facts (because of course that's what you would do), who is an open-minded curious soul that goes digging for answers (as do you), who gives others the benefit of the doubt (naturally), and is rational (yes!) and never, ever, ever reacts to what they see, hear, breathe, eat, and smell through the bias of their own experience and perceptions (erm, no, you would never do that) or envies, jealousies, bitterness, guilt, or pride (right?).
I'll use my own mistakes in this as an example. By nature, I'm overly empathetic. I experience tangible physical and emotional discomfort when I see others taken advantage of, hurt by cruelty, or humiliated. Therefore, it's difficult for me to grasp why anyone would be deliberately unkind, caustic, or insensitive, and especially how they would find that type of behavior amusing. I've also been churned through the school of hard knocks and have learned that talking smack about others makes me dirty, that being petty makes me small, and that it's impossible to improve my own life by tearing apart someone else's. And so it was that being egocentric just like the rest of humanity, and projecting my world view onto others just like everyone else does, I absorbed those first waves of negativity as if those who'd written the hateful things were smarter, more thoughtful, better educated, more respected versions of me, with much greater depth and insight than I could ever have. Finding myself trashed by so many people of such high caliber was devastating! The Negative-Review Shock was horrific.
Now logically, and especially in retrospect, my emotional response was ridiculous. Laugh-out-loud funny. What-was-I-thinking embarrassing. But the thinking self and feeling self don't communicate very well, and when the entire self feels under attack, thinking and logic walk right out the door--mine certainly did.
But the thing is, in real life, people who devote time and energy to tearing others down (which is not the same thing as offering a negative opinion) are *generally* small people, damaged people, petty and defensive, insular and overly reactive. They're not often the ones who garner respect or admiration or who are highly successful. Had I been the recipient of the same kind of thought-garbage by someone like this in a face-to-face encounter, I would have been a bit baffled, maybe second-guessed myself somewhat (because conflict does that to me), and then worked through it and forgot about it. Ultimately, it wasn't reading the negativity or giving too much weight to the negativity that threw me into a massive state of Negative-Review Shock, my mistake was giving too much credence to the *people* behind that specific *type* of negativity.
Eventually I learned an amazing thing: magic happens when you're able to step beyond the pain for a moment to humanize those odious anonymous words. I mentally created real-life scenarios in which those who wrote the hateful things were flesh-and-blood, sharing from common human experience: disappointment, rejection, divorce, controlling bosses, weight issues, relationship issues, deaths in the family, poor health, disabled children, financial troubles, lost dreams, and maybe some not so good life choices along the way. The hurt didn't go away completely, but putting everything into proper perspective made it a whole lot better.
And that brings us to the fourth thing you should know: The most painful comments tend to arrive from three very broad general camps: readers, snark makers, and frustrated writers/frustrated writers by proxy. Readers who are writers, and writers who are readers, and readers who just read and don’t write, are your friends. These are the individuals who, while telling the world how very lame your work is, will comment on story, characters, plot, and content. As much as this might hurt, it truly is a gift. These comments may be right or they may be the result of poor reading comprehension, preconceived ideas, and bias, but regardless, if you stretch past the ouchies and really listen to what's being said, you'll find that some comments begin to echo and you can use these as a guidepost to improve your craft.
Snark makers and frustrated writers are the ones who mock with vicious abandon. The difference between their type of negativity and that which is helpful can be described as the difference between: "This work sucks, I couldn't even get through it," and, "This work sucks, I couldn't even get through it because this author is stupid and ugly and should be trampled by bulls, and we should use this book as toilet paper even though that will insult both toilet and paper. Doesn't everyone just hate how this author claims to be oh so awesome when really anyone who knows anything agrees that this work is nothing but drivel from a hack who's obviously never learned that good writers do [insert writing school trope], and it's blatantly obvious that the only reason this book was written was because of [insert political, religious, or financial bias.] The only way anyone would have published this tripe was because they owed the author a favor." These are the comments that will most benefit from the ability to humanize the person on the other side.
There's a lot of truth in the adage that book reviews reveal more about the person doing the reviewing than they do about the book, but it's difficult to internalize that when you're in the throes of NRS. On this subject, JK Rowling answered with amazing class when she said, "A very famous writer once said, 'A book is like a mirror. If a fool looks in, you can't expect a genius to look out.' People tend to find in books what they want to find."
A parting word, Dear Artist: When words of mocking cruelty are heaped upon you, and the pain of being publicly eviscerated shatters your self-confidence and causes you to re-evaluate your sense of worth, look deeper and you’ll find that the animosity isn't actually about you.
Taylor Stevens is an award-winning and New York Times bestselling novelist who—by odds and expectations—should never have become either successful or published. Like many aspiring authors Stevens had no credentials or platform, and no direct route into the publishing world. But, unlike most, she was also limited by a life of cultural isolation and a sixth-grade education.
Born into an apocalyptic cult and raised in communes across the globe, Stevens grew up as a child laborer, cooking and cleaning for up to a hundred at a time, caring for younger commune children, or out on the streets begging on behalf of commune leaders. Books, movies, music, and pop-culture from the outside world were strictly forbidden, and she finally gained unlimited access to fiction after returning to the United States in her early thirties. Her books have since been published in over twenty languages, with The Informationist optioned for film by James Cameron’s production company, Lightstorm Entertainment.