Friday, July 10, 2009

Dealing With Criticism

Most people who write, assuming they share their manuscripts with non-family members and/or people in a position of power over them (agents, editors, publishers, etc) have tasted rejection to one degree or another. Some neophytes handle it well, resending manuscripts that have been rejected to another publisher in the hopes of a better fit, or taking well-intended advice and working on yet another draft. It took me quite a while for the sting of rejection to fade into a simpler, gentler sense of overall disappointment, but it was worth it, as now I no longer have to wait for responses with my breath held, fear the dominant emotion when I pull the return envelope from my mailbox.

You win some, you lose some, and anything more than just the word “no” scribbled on a piece of notepaper as a response is going to teach you something. That’s how I see it.

Some of us don’t have the same perspective. Some of us take it personally and feel insulted or humiliated. Some of us fire back poorly thought-out rebuttals or slander those who’ve rejected us on social networking sites. These are all very bad reactions, but considering our newness and lack of critical success most recipients, if they even pay attention to our ramblings, are apt to simply roll their eyes at us and forget we even exist.

When it’s an established author, things are a bit different. The stakes are higher, reputations are tarnished and business ties can be broken. Bad press for a well-known author can be very, very damaging.

When I read a less than stellar book review, as a reader, I tend to not pay too much attention to it. Either something in the review catches my eye and, despite the poor marks in some areas, I’ll pick the book up or I’ll find myself nodding in agreement, not interested in the novel at all. I rarely think of the authors involved. I’m sure it’s far from accurate, but my imagined response to a bad review for an author is about as dramatic as a middle fingered wave at the page before slam-dunking it into the garbage. Over and done with. They’re published authors. They’ve got agents, contracts, royalties. They don’t care about what the reviews say, right?

I have a feeling my initial impression of how the higher echelons deal with criticism was further off than I thought.

Alice Hoffman is a writer with thirty years of experience in publishing. She’s incredibly well known. You would think that she’d be the prime candidate for playing it cool in the face of criticism, right? Not really. Seems last month, after the Boston Globe’s reviewer Roberta Silman gave her a somewhat lackluster (though not entirely negative) review, Hoffman took her vengeance to Twitter.

Twenty-seven irate tweets in response to a review that was, in some places, complimentary. Silman even explains that one of Hoffman’s previous works is one of her favorite books, an accomplishment I’m sure is not easy considering the sheer amount reviewers/writers (Silman is a fiction writer as well) read in their lifetimes.

I’m starting to believe that anxiety is the great equalizer. We’ve all got it, from beginners to professionals, and we’ll never be able to shake it completely. How we deal with it is the most important thing. I follow, as closely as my short temper will allow, a two-fold strategy to criticism. First, never take it to heart or assume the person criticizing is making an intimate attack. Second, never respond with anything but a gracious thank you, and only in the case of manuscript critiques or peer review. Don’t succumb to the childish urge to retaliate. It’s a decent strategy, and I think I’ve done rather well with it. If I ever get to the big leagues I’ll have many opportunities to test my technique there, though I suspect it’s a rather universal idea, well suited to most situations.

What to do, then, if you’re an author and you’ve been given low marks by not one but multiple reviewers? What if you can’t bite your tongue or shrug it off? What then? What did mystery novelist Brad Meltzer do last year when ARCs of his latest, The Book of Lies, were heavily panned?

He didn’t write twenty-seven irate Tweets.

Despite the astounding amount of bad press, most of which he has collected for me right here, I still want to take a peek at his novel, just to see what kind of prose this author could have come up with.

And this, I think, is the whole point.

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