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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?

Comments: 7

7 Comments

  1. you are doing such a great job and I love all of it so far but……. just joking. I have decided that we are not happy unless we are complaining or criticising we do it all the time, everywhere we go, ” I dont like the colour of the House, Car, Clothing, Hair “,there is always someone ready to let you know they think what you have done or got stinks. I have done it myself you even say to the person I don’t mean to upset you but…. and you know what you are going to say will upset them and you say it anyway, Why did it really need to be said or do you just say it to make yourself feel better Love youre new house but I hate the colour well lucky it not your house then or is it just because your pissed off you dont have a house like that. you have to ask your self why we care so much what other people think, the list goes on about what we complain about customer service is one we all love to hate. I did customer service for many years one of the best criticims I got was your service today was terriable why I asked to be told that I was not smiling enough I was fast and answered question very politey and had great knowledge but……. there is always a BUT…. so Ive come to the conclusion that we are only happy if we criticise

  2. Karen, you know what I want to say and who I want to say it about; but I won’t. 😉

    I just thought I’d put up this link to a BRILLIANT short video on what makes a good crit partner: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k0qkN8KwcQ4

  3. Great article Karen! I’m come to accept that everything is subjective and we can’t control how people read our work. I don’t mind reviewers criticizing my writing, but when it comes to content, quite often, rather than simply saying the story doesn’t speak to them and / or they ‘get it’ they’ll trash it. And that’s what bugs me most.

    I loved how they had a white middle-class man review my chicklit novel for the SMH – and surprise surprise he didn’t like it. Doesn’t like chicklit. Said the novel was formulaic! Well yes, of course it is. So is crime fiction. Idiot! And anyway, Jane Austen was the greatest chicklit author ever!!

    I don’t worry about reviews so much because I don’t let them influence what I read either. I love books that other people loathe, and so we have to trust our fans, our followers who actually ‘get’ our voice, style and story.

    re books being like babies – someone said to me at a Christmas party recently ‘So you never had children?’ I answered: ‘I’ve given birth to nine books and don’t have a single stretch mark!’

    Thanks for the yarn…
    Anita

  4. Ah, Anita! It’s so true – re reviews and inappropriate reviewers and I just wish I could get my head around the ‘don’t read them’ part! LOL! LIke you, I do read books others don’t like and love them… and someone who doesn’t get any genre to review it. I’m sure our writing friends could fill libraries with those stories alone! Nine kids and no stretch marks – LOL! Yes, well, I have had two human children and they decorated me very nicely – my seven paper babies have just given me emotional stretch marks…

    And hey, Kim – yes, I know ROFL! And you also know that it’s still sticking in my caw – especially when I am bombarded with invites! Never mind.

    And Janine, you’re right, everyone loves to criticise. I try not to criticise, and fall flat on my face with my own good intentions sometimes! LOL! But a reviewer does not need to criticise alone… as Anita (and I said) we don’t mind if people don’t like the work or even aspects of it and state that – that’s par for the course, but it’s the sometimes the way it’s done (the ‘trashing’ as Anita says) without acknowledging that someone, somewhere may like it – or, as Anita also said, enjoy chickit for example (hey, millions of Jane Austen fans over centuries can’t ALL be wrong, can they?), or those who do like and understand fantasy. There was a reason Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings was voted THE book of last century… it was wasn’t it? Or am I making that up? But ungenerous reviewers don’t note those sorts of things. They just criticise and that’s NOT their job. Reviewing: that is, discussing the pros and cons of a book, situating it within a socio-historical context and discussing genre and its strengths and weaknesses is part of their responsibility and there are some fabulous reviewers out there. But, as you say, Janine, these days most people believe they HAVE to be a critic! They don’t *big sigh.
    Thanks everyone – here and on FB for your comments. Really great!

  5. I was a member of an online writing group that required you to write critical reviews of three pieces of work on the website for every piece you submitted. And they didn’t seem to want you to tell people you liked their work, they really wanted you to let loose, and would then critique you on your critique. If it didn’t meet their standards, it didn’t count towards your required three. It was hard work, because I’m not critical by nature, hence I didn’t survive there long.

    Fiction writing is so subjective, and what doesn’t suit one reviewer may be fantastic to another.

  6. Couldn’t agree with you more – about the subjectiveness. Also, the fact that ‘critiquing’ (or reviewing) is regarded as fault-finding. Reviewing anything creative is always going to be subjective, it has to be to a degree, but that can also be mitigated slightly by creating a context in which the work can be situated and appreciating or, at least, acknowledging, the effort the creator has gone to – even if you don’t like the content. As Anita says (and she’s a fabulous writer with a terrific knowledge of genre and plays to that as well – as we all do who write genre fiction), it’s fine not to enjoy the genre, or even the content, but does that give you the right to lay the boot in without accepting that others might like what you are so ready to denigrate? Anyhow, it’s all food for though, isn’t it? I should declare myself here and say I write reviews – some professionally (I am paid for them) and I refuse to write a review on a book I do not like. I can critique a book, sure, but if I do not like it all – I accept it may be personal taste, it may be the style, but I don’t see why I have to make that public – not when there are plenty of others so keen to do that! Thanks for your post!

  7. Hey! Just thought I’d chime in. I really was impressed by this blog. Keep up the phenomonal work.

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