This might take a while. It’s a recurrent theme here at MW but not one we’ve addressed much recently so I thought I’d come at it from a slightly different perspective.
Different conversations with friends over the last few days got me thinking about the various forms of crap that gets thrown at writers. Some instances:
bitter, hostile or otherwise unhelpful beta readers/critique partners
snide remarks from friends and colleagues about your literary “hobby” (these don’t go away after you’ve hit the NY Times
Bestseller list, by the way)
rejections from agents, editors and their minions, the tone of which range from the bland to the brutal
blistering, mean-spirited unfair or ill-informed reviews of your published work everywhere from legitimate newspapers and websites
to the dreaded one star reviews on Amazon.
I’d like to say that if you just tough it out, your success will eventually lift you above this poisonous tide and you’ll float free, unsullied by negativity, to your literary goals (critical and fiscal).
But that would be a lie.
So here’s the unvarnished truth and an attempt to wrestle with its implications.
It NEVER stops. Not when you land an agent, not when you make your first sale, not when your book comes out, not when your tenth book garners awards or makes you a fortune. Never.
There will always be people who either just don’t like your stuff or are driven to try and tear you down. The problem of course is that the former (which might be a legitimate difference in taste, values, politics or whatever) easily slides into the latter which is simply hateful, at least in the mind of the author whose work is being pummeled.
The consequences of such negativity are potentially deep and crippling. Writers might suffer huge crises of confidence faced with negative reviews or rejections, and some give up outright, or become so unsure of their own ability and the value of their story that they never manage to get it out at all. The criticism and rejection chokes the author’s sense of all they do well, and they freeze up.
As regular readers of this blog know only too well, I’ve had my share of rejection of negativity, particularly in the 20+ years when I sought to sell my first novel, though there has been more since, some of it harder to handle than the comparatively familiar if grueling rejection of the those early years. I won’t bore you with the details, but trust me; when it comes to negative response to my work, I know whereof I speak.
So. How do you get through it?
The usual answer, one I’ve often offered to writers, is that you have to develop a thick skin, that you just develop a resilience to criticism so that it rolls off you like water off a duck’s back.
But this is only partly true and is, as I think seriously about, at least as partly just plain wrong. People who know me well will tell you that I don’t have a thick skin at all. I take criticism and negativity to heart and I take it personally, whether it’s a snide review on Amazon or the one bad student evaluation in a pile of enthusiastic thumbs up. I dwell on these in ways quite disproportionate to their real value. Why? Because that’s who I am and because my writing (and, yes, my teaching) are deeply personal to me, things I invest a good deal of myself in, things that come out of my very soul. Reject my books and you reject me. Mock my writing, dismiss it as trash, consign it to the dung heap of literary history and I’m going to be hurt and pissed.
So sue me.
I make no apologies for taking such things personally. They ARE personal, and no amount of skin-thickening will make them otherwise. Time, of course, mitigates such things, raises the immunity level and makes them sting a little less (especially as you move on to new projects), but the whips and scorns of the world outside my own head will always have power to wound.
But that’s okay, and I’ve started to think that a thick skin is an overrated commodity. Writers need to be able to feel, to be open to ideas, to sensations, to pain. Numb up our bodies to protect our feelings and those feelings go away. The fact that I feel things deeply is not just who I am, and it certainly isn’t weakness. Only people too scared to feel anything would think otherwise. There’s power in feeling, power writers need.
I’m not saying pain is necessarily good, that all that negativity is somehow doing us a favor and making us better people, better artists or whatever. Too much terrible history has been built on that convenient lie. What I’m saying is that writing is not a business for people who don’t feel, and pain is therefore inevitable. You can turn away from it (ignoring the one star review, the belligerent beta reader, or the petulant rejection letter) but that’s dangerous too, because however poorly expressed those criticisms are, they MIGHT contain a grain of truth from which you could learn and improve.
The key, I think, is to assess the validity of the critique, part of which is an assessment of the source. If you know that one guy in your writers’ group hates you or the genre you write in or anything that isn’t written by, you know, him, then you can ignore him safely. Such things can be healthily sloughed off like old skin.
Trickier are the jabs which hit a nerve, which press on things we suspect—or simply fear—might be true. In such cases I would suggest you ask other readers to look at your work and then talk to them about the very issue for which you’ve been attacked and see what they think. Finally, of course, you have to trust your own judgment. Again, there maybe something to be learned, something that will help you fix a real deficiency, but it might just as easily be a matter of taste or judgment that doesn’t need addressing at all.
Because the bottom line is the obvious one: you can’t please everyone, and though some of us secretly want to, you won’t. Ever. When you get used to that idea, the criticism may still hurt but you’ll be less likely to let it stop you or even slow you down. You’re going to get criticized, even attacked, but you keep going because you’re a writer and that’s what writers do. You have stories to tell, characters to develop. So yeah, feel the hurt and do what you need to for a time: yell, cry, rant, find friends to commiserate with, drink with, watch a movie, burn your critics in effigy, whatever: then get over it, think about all you know you do well, and get on with producing more. If you don’t, the haters win, and the world is a little poorer.