Handling Criticism

There’s a funny scene in the movie “A History of the World, Part I” in which an earnest caveman impresses his fellows by making the very first cave painting. Of course, as soon as the caveman completes his masterpiece, another strides forward, appraises the artist’s work, and urinates upon it. Art has been born and so has the critic. The two go hand in hand.

There are few guarantees in life, but I’m willing to wager that there is no universally beloved painting, book, or song in human history. Unfortunately, many young people (and adults) with whom I speak are terrified that a peer, friend, teacher, or stranger may not enjoy their work and consequently refuse to nurture their creative urges and produce — much less share — something of note. It’s really kind of a tragedy — all these interesting ideas and emotions bottled up by a stopper of fear and anxiety. We’d all be much better off if we recognized and accepted a basic fact: human beings are wonderfully diverse creatures and that very diversity prevents everyone from liking the same things. Popular as they are, not everyone enjoys The Hunger Games, Twilight, Harry Potter, Star Wars, and other wildly successful franchises. Some people absolutely despise and ridicule them. Did that prospect frighten off people like George Lucas or Suzanne Collins? Of course not; they each had a vision and mustered the necessary courage and determination to see it through. Those who require universal, guaranteed admiration of their work are never going to create anything. Such guarantees do not exist and, frankly, they shouldn’t.

Does that mean all criticism is stifling or invalid? Of course not — an honest, thoughtful critique is one of the most valuable tools a writer or artist can use to refine their work and improve. But some discrimination is required. This is especially true today when anyone can instantaneously broadcast an opinion to the entire world, regardless of whether that opinion is informed or even articulate. Whenever I come across a negative review of my work, I try to put it into one of three buckets:

1. Critique has real merit
2. Just wasn’t their thing (i.e., reader doesn’t like books in this genre or style)
3. Slosh (incoherent rant, obvious trolling, religious objections to subject, etc.)

The first bucket is the most important and where I spend time looking for themes. For example, if many readers complain about redundant phrasing, pacing issues, or sudden jumps in the timeline, then chances are I need to refine some of these aspects. These objections don’t hurt my feelings. On the contrary, I’m grateful to these readers for pointing out some of my blind spots. Every writer has tendencies of which they are unaware, just like everyone has speech patterns and little tics that can surprise or even startle them when they see a video of themselves speaking. What is clear in my own mind, may not be clear to others and it’s my task to bridge that gap. When readers tell me I’ve done a poor job explaining something or relaying the action in a clear or compelling way, they’re making me a better writer. But only if I’m willing to listen….

The second bucket is one where the author and the reader simply have to agree to disagree. I’ve disappointed some readers who would have preferred The Tapestry remain a charming boarding school story. There are others who are upset and even angry that certain characters have died. Others favor certain storylines over others and get exasperated when I veer from the turf they enjoy into new territory (More Mum and Bob! Less Mum and Bob!). One of the most common critiques I hear is when people dismiss The Tapestry as “just a Harry Potter clone”. Whenever I hear this, I suspect the person has not read the entire series but is making an easy comparison based on the first book (i.e., boy discovers he has hidden powers and goes off to a school of magic). As tempting as it is to debate, I often just encourage them to keep reading. If they’re willing to do that, great. If not, so be it. If they still think Max McDaniels is just an American Harry Potter by the third or fourth book, nothing I can do is going to convince them otherwise. That’s their opinion and they’re sticking to it. As long as that opinion is an informed opinion (i.e., they’ve actually read the whole series) then I’m good with it — even if I disagree.

And then there’s that third bucket. I suppose we can call it the “THIS SUCKS!!!” bucket, since both the sentiment and intensity prevail. These are the curious one-star reviews of your book that has not yet been published, the angry rant from someone whose e-book did not download properly and they blame you and your story (as opposed to the retailer). And then there are the innumerable “This was so bad!” “I hated it!” “The author is an idiot!” “The writer cant (sic) write”, etc. etc. etc. While the Internet provides incredible content and enrichment opportunities, its size and the prospect of anonymity also provide opportunities to say things that one would never repeat in person. Or at least I hope not. So, what should one do with the personal attacks, mindless rants, or nonsensical negativity?

Forget about it and move on.

Of course, sometimes that’s easier said than done. After all, writers are people too, and whenever I come across anything that’s really rude or gets me itching to respond (and believe me, there are times I would really love to scratch that itch) I’ll take a deep breath and look up a favorite author or novel and peruse some of the nastier comments and reviews. It’s comforting to know that James Joyce, Tolkien, LeGuin, Pullman, Toni Morrison, and Patrick O’Brien have endured some of the same barbs that I have. It puts things in perspective and reinforces the basic truism I stated above – not everyone is going to love your stuff. Furthermore, some people simply get a strange rush or thrill by saying nasty, offensive things on the Internet. No more, no less. You can’t let it get you down. If you’ve really got a thick skin, you can even get a good laugh out of some — after all, there’s some delicious irony when someone accuses you of “incompitance”.

So that’s my long-winded take on criticism. Here’s the abridged version:
1. Art has been subject to criticism for as long as it has existed (i.e., “Your cave painting stinks”)
2. Negative criticism is inevitable; you can’t let it prevent you from taking risks
3. Some criticism is valid, incredibly valuable, and should be embraced
4. Some criticism is simply a matter of taste and can be ignored
5. Some criticism is nasty, uninformed, and good for a laugh
6. If you receive some really harsh criticism, exhale and relax…you’re in good company!

Feeling empowered? Feeling creative? Get to it! Start writing or drawing or making your film or composing your music. After all, if you don’t make it, we can’t critique it… 😉