Anyone who produces any sort of art for public consumption has to accept that they will come under scrutiny, and that not everyone will like what they do. I write for a theatre review website, and while I – and my fellow reviewers – always try to be fair, there are a decent number of scathing opinions on the site, because we all feel it’s our duty as reviewers to speak up at what we see as poor acting, sloppy writing or ill-conceived or badly executed productions. We're there for the viewers, not the makers, and besides, it’s constructive, isn't it? Yet it never feels like that when you’re on the receiving end of it.
As someone who has been writing – and having things published – on and off for the best part of 20 years, I’ve certainly had my fair share of criticism. My first novel was about a sexually transgressive affair: dark, yes, but not – I thought – without humour. Still didn’t stop one reviewer commenting that they wondered how I’d managed to write it without causing myself lasting psychological damage, or someone on Amazon dismissing it as ‘tediously trying to shock’. (Not to mention the agent who said “I really like it – can you make it 50,000 words longer?” Um, no.)
And of course now, with the internet, everyone is a critic: and not everyone takes it well. Plenty of book bloggers report tales of furious authors taking public umbrage at bad reviews (many won’t even review self-published books, arguing that this kind of behaviour is more prevalent amongst non-professional authors). Read any article on any reasonably popular website and the comments section will make you cringe: there’s a reason they say 'never read the bottom half of the internet'. The freedom of online posting also means that people can type things they wouldn’t dream of saying in person and, I hate to say it, but if you’re a woman it’s likely to be worse, because not only are you stupid/wrong/a bad writer, you’re probably fat and ugly as well. (Only last week, I had someone post a comment on an article I wrote for a sci-fi website saying they wanted to ‘smash my ovaries’, which seems a bit of an over-reaction to me questioning the validity of Hollywood making any more Iron Man movies.)
So what to do about it? The answer, as ever, is pretty much nothing. Listen to the constructive feedback: use it where you can, have the courage to ignore it if it really goes against what you believe. For everything else: unless it’s actually threatening (in which case, it’s illegal – tell the police), take it as a good sign. No writer’s appeal is universal: for everyone who loves Ian McEwan, or Stephenie Meyer, or whoever else you care to name, there will be plenty of people who can’t stand their work. Did I mention Lord of the Flies got rejected 100 times?