Monday, 18 June 2012

A writer's greatest asset? A thick skin

One thing writers get used to quickly is rejection. With the exception of the extremely lucky or the extremely well-connected, any writer’s path is strewn with rejection letters: from agents, from publishers, from magazines…  We’ve all had them, ranging from a ‘we haven’t even read this’ form dismissal to a detailed critique of everything that is wrong with what you’ve written. We console ourselves that it happens to the best of them: JK Rowling was told she’d never make a living from writing. Lord of the Flies was rejected 100 times. I know personally of one (now pretty well-established) novelist whose first book was rejected by one agency, then accepted a month later by another, by the same woman, who had moved agencies in the interim. If that doesn’t prove how arbitrary success can be, what does? But one thing that many aspiring writers don’t realise is, this doesn’t stop when you get published. In fact, if anything, these days it just gets worse.

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?

8 comments:

Hayley N. Jones said...

So true! As an aspiring writer focusing on improving my writing, I find constructive criticism incredibly helpful. However, it's so frustrating when no criticism is offered or improvements suggested. If whoever's reading finds the story less than perfect, I want to know what I should work on. I don't want comments along the lines of 'yeah, it's okay/quite good': I want 'work on the tone/pacing/dialogue'! Suppose I have to accept the curse of 'I just didn't like it'...

One of my MA writing tutors is a successful author who also does a lot of reviews and articles in national publications. He says the anonymity of the internet seems to compel people to say nasty stuff they would never dream of saying in person. But he also found this was true in the days before the internet - when he got letters complaining about what he'd written and containing personal insults. Apparently, these people were rather shocked when he phoned them asking why they'd said such horrible things!

Thrifty Gal said...

Yes, constructive criticism is enormously helpful, but straightforward nastiness just needs to be ignored. And I well believe your old tutor. I used to work in the BBC correspondence (ie complaints) and some of the letters...

JO said...

I agree - do nothing, as it generally says more about the writer than it does about you. I've been around a few writing sites, and it seems the bullies close in on anyone who retaliates, so the whole thing escalates. 'Walking away' is much more effective (it's like leaving someone in the middle of an argument with no one to fight with.)

Though I do get fed up with people assuming that, because I am retired and a woman, I am no use to anyone and should sit back in a corner with my cocoa. It's quite hard to resist the urge to go out to buy a zimmer frame just so I can smash someone round the head with it. (Not that I'd ever do that, of course - but I'm allowed to feel like that!)

Deb said...

Great post, Thrify! There are two schools of thought on this one: develop a very think skin and do and say nothing or, as many authors are doing now, bite back. I recently read the Amazon reviews of a book and in one of them the reviewer wrote a whole essay on why he didn't like the author's book, even resorting to attacking the author's wife and children. The author decided to write an equally long and well thought out essay back, counter attacking the reviewer's remarks, ending up making the reviewer looking stupid and every author shouting 'Yay! Way to go!'
What I find interesting is the book reviews you get from other authors, writing in the same genre as you. You can spot them a mile off!

Derek said...

Sadly, not only does everyone think they're a critic, but they also want the rest of the world to recognise their talent for it.

Feedback from friends and colleagues who can objectively pinpoint why something isn't working can be invaluable. If I get feedback these days, I always ask myself what the motivation is.

Caroline Green said...

Yes, I guess something nasty online is definitely better than a letter!

Has anyone read Her Blue Eyed Boy by Joanne Harris? Touches on all this...

suzy doodling said...

Great post, thanks.

Thrifty Gal said...

Thanks, guys!