Responding to criticism is something writers are going to have to deal with eventually. How we navigate that response depends on the criticism itself, how we feel about the source of the criticism, and what the emotional tenor of our present mood is when we read that review or tweet. It can hit us in a sore spot and make us react…hmmm…let’s say less than civilly.
Recently when Canadian professor, author, and YouTube sensation Jordan Peterson was called a Fascist in a review of his book, he responded by calling the reviewer a prick and challenging him to fisticuffs. And I roared with laughter. There is something about Peterson’s old school let’s settle this on the playground persona that I, and I imagine his legions of fans, find refreshing. I consider myself a liberal, but a lot of what he says makes good common sense, until I see him posing with Pepe the Frog and then I die a little inside.
I think Peterson’s response was a bit off the hook, but nothing compares to author Kathleen Hale who really dropped her basket a few years back when she received a one-star Goodreads review on an ARC copy of her book. Enraged that someone could get her important prose so damn wrong, she didn’t just check out the woman’s Facebook page (we’ve all been there), she began stalking her for real: renting a car, driving to her home, leaving her book on the porch as some weird calling card. At what point in this scenario does the author realize she needs professional help?
Writers (artists in general) are generally sensitive, high-strung people (guilty!). Sometimes criticisms feel like personal attacks; sometimes they are. Below are some suggestions on how to deal with it, not that I always follow my own advice, but I try.
Here we go…
Step away from the screen before you respond. The house I grew up in was surrounded by woods, so it has always been my habit to seek solace in nature when I feel overwhelmed by my emotions. For some people mediation, taking a shower, or listening to music might work. Whatever you need to do to calm down before you react too emotionally, do it.
Don’t argue even if you fervently disagree. This is a brand new world of readers and writers. Writers, those sensitive flowers, are no longer protected by “send inquires to my agent” (well, most aren’t). We are in the trenches, on Wattpad and YouTube, writing in real time and responding to our readers. Embrace it. Readers are now (infuriatingly) very vocal about their opinions. For example, here’s a YouTuber’s take on a very popular writer. Now, I kind of wanted to get up in her (their? I just can’t!!) sanctimonious face after watching this (I notice she deleted my rather restrained but sardonic comment—aw!) because I’m a big King fan; but hey, she’s entitled to her opinion.
As a side note, I’m wondering how a young Stephen King just starting out on Wattpad would react to this review today, but then again, that bad boy of the great paperback horror era would probably be tarred and feathered in today’s PC culture. People who require trigger warnings because a character is being fat-shamed or a little boy steals a kiss seriously bore me to tears. My view is that political correctness destroys art. There is only one time I can recall when a book crossed the moral line for me, but then I read the Marquis de Sade when I was in high school, so to each his own.
Don’t respond at all. This is the hardest thing to do, but one that is probably the wisest. The thanks for your honesty with a smiley face comes off as rather sarcastic and insincere.
When all is said and done, every reader has the right to his or her opinion, just as every writer has the right to write what he or she wants to write. Even Mr. King.
Experience has taught me the very painful lesson that the comments and criticisms that really get under my skin are the ones that ring most true. After a bit of distance and reflection, I may just learn something valuable from them.