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The Writer’s Ego: Coping With Criticism

A friend of mine on FaceBook prompted me to write this blog after she felt depressed about feedback she’d received from her writing group regarding a novel upon which she was working. She also felt a little guilty for feeling that way and was kicking herself because, feedback is what writers thrive on, isn’t it? It’s what we need in order to elevate our prose or whatever style we’re writing in to the next level.

Well, yes and no.

Let me explain. There are two types of feedback in this world and both involve the ‘C’ word. Of course, I mean Criticism.

The first kind is that delivered with knowledge and generosity – the knowledge springing from direct experience gleaned from the Critic being a writer and receiving feedback her or himself or from a deep understanding and love a literature generally or both. This kind of reviewer can be professional (as in reviewer is paid for their trouble) and published in newspapers, magazines, websites and other media or simply provided by a lover/fan/practitioner of writing and/or reading. the point being that none of these are mutually exclusive.

The second kind of review is that done with varying degrees of knowledge but most of all it is written with an ungenerous eye.

I know many writers and all of them tell me they have experienced both kinds. While a writer loves nothing better then a positive review, a negative review can be crushing. But it is the ungenerous, mean-spirited and destructive review that nitpicks and uses ad hominen attacks (attacking the person who wrote rather than the writing itself) that leave the worst kinds of scars and, frankly, I fail to see the point except to cause hurt and distress.

One very well known writer friend of mine tells me not to read reviews, that she doesn’t and therefore doesn’t know what’s said about her work (it’s usually always wonderful). But I am not yet ready to take that step. I wish I was. I don’t feel I am experienced enough to walk away from what might, buried in a review, prove to be a really valuable piece of advice or an observation that, whether positive or negative, should be paid attention to in order to improve future works. As a result, I do very occasionally get to read really ungenerous reviews. Interestingly, I can tell in the first line what kind it is going to be but, like an eavesdropper hearing no good about themselves, feel compelled to read on – just in case…

I am relatively thick-skinned when it comes to being criticised. I receive critiques all the time. As a newspaper columnist and feature writer, readers interact with my work on an almost daily basis. I receive feedback that makes me laugh, cry (in a good way), challenges, attacks me as well as some that makes me appalled that someone feels they have a right to make assumptions about me on the basis of an opinion or piece. One time, an article I wrote on Harry Potter caused a newspaper’s online feedback system to crash as readers around the world responded with vitriol to some of my points. They called me ‘sick’, spoke of the sympathy they had for my children for having such a mother, questioned my educational qualifications ‘What’s your doctorate in? Stupidity?’ and so on. These comments flew at me from around the globe and were a baptism by fire into the world of criticism. I was heartbroken and quite confused when what I had done was write what I believed was an intelligent, well-researched and humourous piece on what was fast becoming the Harry Potter phenomenon. And yes, my ego was bruised. The fact that I was able to respond with a piece entitled ‘I’m no Rita Skeeter,’ and the overwhelming lovely feedback I received and apologies, did a great deal to salve my wounds, but it also taught me a huge lesson in coping with not only the people who read your work and take it to heart, but the cruel anonymity of the internet. There’s also its immediacy to take into consideration, how anyone and everyone can now fire verbal barbs with the intention to make them stick or just as bad, without thinking…

As a result of this anonymity and speed I have, over the years via email mostly, been invited to burn in the eternal fires of hell, had my patriotism questioned, been told to go back to where I came from (I can’t, my mother is dead), had my sex and sexuality questioned and the list goes on. Strangely, those comments, which are more about me than my journalistic pieces, don’t hurt nearly as much as those which are directed at my creative writing. Hence, I understand exactly where my friend is coming from.

Doing my Ph.D. was an exercise in learning to write for a critical audience as is writing scholarly articles and having them ‘blind-reviewed’ by three peers around the world. Comments such as ‘ugh’, ‘point so lost it couldn’t find its way out of the London Underground’ and so on were relatively common. Even so, I only ever had one article rejected and that was in the first year of my PhD. So, I did get used to harsh comments.

But still, the ungenerous ones stand out from the crowd in a way that tells a great deal more about the reviewer than the piece he or she is critiquing.

Writers, regardless of what genre or for which audience they’re writing, labour over their words, even those writers, such as journalists, with strict deadlines and word counts. What might appear rushed, is generally thought out and edited heavily before someone else gets to fiddle with it and well before the public read it. All angles are deliberated (even if a particular approach is directed), and rejected or embraced. What can appear slap-dash, rarely is – even if it does invite that kind of criticism.

However, when we’re talking about a novel, a completely different set of skills and effort are applied. Generally, time works in the writer’s favour (though not always) and they use this wisely-ish. Every word, sentence, paragraph, character, theme, plot is highly developed and lovingly written and rewritten. What to include, what to exclude; where to allow the reader a breather, where to pick up the pace, where to use prolepsis (foreshadowing) and analepsis (flashbacks) are all are agonised over long before the work ever gets a public guernsey. By the time it reaches publication, all this has been mulled over and rewritten and edited at least hundreds of times and with the aid of professional editors, copy writers and so on.

But the truth is, no matter how much work you put in, it’s never perfect, it will never satisfy everyone – look at works that have sold millions and won accolades around the world. J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, Dan Brown, even ‘untouchables’ such as J.R.R. Tolkein, Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx, receive criticism. Why shouldn’t us ‘lesser’ souls? And we do.

But again, it’s the way the critiquing, the feedback, the review of the work is done that is so important. Most of us can accept that some readers (hopefully, only some) will not like what we’ve written and that’s fine (it’s even better if they keep it to themselves!), but if a reviewer has that reaction (though, I never understand why some media pick people to review genre work who have no experience in the genre! I remember, years ago, a review of one of my books beginning this way: ‘I didn’t like this book, but then, I hate fantasy…’ Go figure. But that didn’t stop them reviewing it – they were doing the job they were paid to do). We can also accept, as my friend did, the well-intentioned advice and observations of people we trust to provide honest, constructive feedback, the kind that comes from a position of goodwill with the motive to help us make our writing the best it possibly can be.

But it’s the destructive, nasty reviews that are hard to take. It’s as if the reviewer takes to heart the notion that critiquing is ‘criticising’ – fault-finding and nit-picking and little else. I mean, I’m sure if we all looked long and hard enough, and examined Mother Teresa and Ghandi with that kind of attitude, we’d find fault as well. But what does it achieve? To read something through the lens of ‘what can I find wrong with this? What flaws can I point out? What mistakes has this writer made? What do I NOT like about this book?’ is not helpful for anyone really. I imagine that it gives that kind of reviewer a sense of power. But over what? Some poor author who has invested a part of their life (and usually their family’s as well), heart and soul into a work of which they’re very proud. And then someone comes along and sinks the boot in – not in a way that is useful, but which is designed to bring that big-headed writer down a peg or two, because of course, anyone who is published must have a huge ego.

Well, maybe one or two do, but in my experience, most writers are quite humble souls who beaver away in solitude, lost in their imaginations. And they tremble at the thought of reviews and reviewers. Hence, they can potentially fall apart at the first sign of criticism – especially vile, toxic criticism. But guess what, they also pick themselves up again and keep going. That’s because they can’t help themselves, they love what they do with passion.

I’m not suggesting that reviewers go easy or soft – not at all! But that when they’re writing they weigh up the pros and the cons and try to point out the good and the bad. Because as the adage goes, one person’s trash is another’s treasure – ever heard of Twlight? That series polarises people faster than a compass finds Magnetic North.

So, I really do understand my friend temporarily floundering under criticism that was generously given. But I admire her for taking it on board and using it in the way it was delivered, to make her work stronger and more appealing. But I also understand why my other friend doesn’t read reviews. The ungenerous ones serve no purpose for writer or reader, rather they do little more than diminish both.

You know, writing a book is like having a baby. It gestates for months, if not years, before being born into the world. But the difference between writing and having a baby is that, while no-one will criticise your human baby to your face, when it comes to your creative one, there’s lots of bastards out there who delight in telling all and sundry what an ugly baby you’ve delivered!

What do you think?

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