When I think about how I react to criticism of my writing, an image comes to my mind. It’s a fish I saw once at an aquarium—the porcupine fish, or puffer fish.
Porcupine fish are armed with key survival equipment. They have the ability to inflate their bodies by swallowing water or air, thus reducing the range of predators to those with bigger mouths. They also possess sharp spines, which radiate outward when the fish is inflated.
I wish my defense mechanisms were as effective. The truth is that criticism hurts. There’s no way around it. And it hurts emotionally. Our writing is personal. We invest our emotions in what we write. So when a critic trashes a book by leaving a one-star review, accompanied by vitriolic words strewn across cyberspace for the world to see, the pain is palpable. I’ve heard stories of authors who were so shaken by a bad review that they couldn’t write for months. We take criticism to heart because all good fiction writing is personal.
But there are two types of criticism. There is well-intentioned, honest, and specific criticism. The critic is knowledgeable about literature and renders an informed opinion of the story’s shortcomings and backs it up with specific examples and constructive suggestions for how the piece can be improved. Writers should welcome and encourage such criticism.
Then there is the other type of criticism—mean-spirited, vague, venomous, and hurtful. This type of criticism is usually penned by anonymous individuals. I can only speculate as to their motives, but my theory is that many of these critics have low self-esteem and leaving a bad review makes them feel superior to the defenseless writer.
During the recent Writer Unboxed Un-Conference, a highly respected professional critic led a session entitled, “Criticism. When to Listen. What to Hear.” Porter Anderson, a veteran professional critic who is a Fellow in the National Critics Institute, made a distinction between consumer reviews and literary criticism. Writers should ignore emotional testimonials (“I loved it,” “I threw the book against the wall”). Anderson has no use for ratings, either (thumbs up/thumbs down, four out of five stars).
Likening consumer reviews to a mixed cocktail, Anderson said they tend to consist of:
–Three parts instruction (read it or don’t read it),
–Three parts dumbing down (how many stars), and
–Three parts emotion (“This book stinks!”)
“Most reviews benefit readers and customers,” he said. “What authors want are reviews that tell them something about their work.”
He advised writers to:
–Scour reviews for specificity,
–Ignore emotional reactions (positive or negative),
–Duck “buy” or “Don’t buy” messages,
–Pay as little attention as possible to the symbolic ratings (how many stars), and
–Watch for consistent reviewers, readers who turn up to review more than one of your books.
Reviews should offer feedback that is specific, identifiable, and actionable, he said.
And, lastly, he cautioned authors to never engage the critic. “Bullying by reviewers and of reviewers is not new,” he said. “It’s been going on for years…Anger and hostility shouldn’t be happening. As an author, don’t engage the bully critic.”
Several hours after Anderson’s session on criticism, something extraordinary happened. There was a planned session after dinner in which authors in attendance were invited to read aloud the worst review they had received. I expected to be staring at an empty podium. On the contrary, author after author strode to the podium to gleefully read poorly written, grammatically incorrect, and often incoherent reviews of their work. I couldn’t imagine doing that. It took unbelievable courage for writers to stand up there and read these reviews. There was an element of pettiness to nearly every bad review. I couldn’t help but think that these reviews reflected more on the reviewer than the author being reviewed.