Bad Reviews? You Might Not Want Me in Your Corner (+ Writer Unboxed Redirect)

failureIf you have any friends who are published writers, it doesn’t take long before you witness them coping with vicious reviews. I don’t know how you respond in such cases, but this has been my progression:

1. Feel horribly, deeply sympathetic, not only because you can see how it’s affecting them, but you can identify with their feelings. After all, you’ve had precious work that’s been misunderstood. You’ve been mocked and hated by people for no accountable reason. (As in all of junior high school.)

2. Give the kind of support which helped you in similar circumstances, or that you imagine would soothe you if the review were yours.

Depending upon the person and your mood, this can range from reflective listening to a pep talk, or concocting elaborate revenge fantasies, safe in the knowledge they will never be enacted. (Remind me to tell you about the family walks in which the ToolMaster and I pushed a serene Molly in her stroller, all while musing about hiring a hitman.)

3. Eventually you reach the point where the hits keep coming, the friends keep hurting, and you realize you have nothing fresh to give. If there is to be healing and forward movement, it’s going to come from people more qualified than you. Alternatively, it’ll have to be an inside job. Your friends will dig deep and find a source of resilience, or they won’t.

Spend long enough in this stage and you’ll soon see two options:

  • Remain an empathetic, soft place to land, while accepting there’s nothing more you can do.
  • Use rationalization or distancing to avoid feeling overwhelmed by their suffering. This might manifest as becoming unresponsive, uttering meaningless platitudes, rejecting their emotions, or even a certain smugness. When I get to this stage, I’ll be able to manage it without this level of angst.

My confession: despite avoiding compassion fatigue for the most part in medicine, when it comes to writing, I know there are times I’ve fallen into the latter category.

This was brought home to me in my latest Writer Unboxed post. (Never Go Naked to Scrabble: Authorial Words Containing “BIC”)

Mondays are heavy, dreaded day for the O’Hara offspring. Accordingly, after the success and laughter which greeted a similar post, I wrote this post hoping to make it a Monday-refuge. And for the most part, I believe I would have succeeded, except for one tiny fly in the ointment.

Though it’s deleted now, I used a phrase in the intro which was funny to my Canadian beta-readers, and probably would have played well on a Southpark episode or to a Colbert audience. But it wasn’t right for the WU audience.

Further, the timing made it too painful for some, and most importantly, I discovered I possessed a cultural blind spot. No matter how many friends I have in the States, no matter how educated I might be, I am not an American. I’m just not. What was intended as comedic relief actually aggravated a cultural wound.

Similarly, as the comments rolled in—some generous as they corrected me, some less so—as my mouth filled with a bitter taste and my heart accelerated, I knew that no matter how much I might think I understood about rejection and how to manage it, I’d been fooling myself.

These are marvelous things to know, Zesties. Back to beginner mind.

I didn’t enjoy the experience at the time, but I’m grateful for what I’ve learned. Perhaps I’ll become a better writer or, failing that, a better friend.

If you have writer friends, are you good at consoling them when they receive a bad review? What has been most effective?

Tell me about your cultural blind spots. Do you know what you don’t know? What steps have you taken to guard against them?

23 thoughts on “Bad Reviews? You Might Not Want Me in Your Corner (+ Writer Unboxed Redirect)

  1. I’m constantly reminded of how much I don’t know, Jan! It’s amazing to me how ‘close’ the world can be with the Internet and yet how many differences we still have. I thought you handled the situation very gratefully.

    1. Well that’s certainly nice to hear, Liz. If I did, I have to thank my background, where it was important to hear the pain which often motivated anger, then work to problem-solve. It’s harder to “hear” the pain on the internet, without benefit of body language, but I hope I’ll remember those medical lessons in the future.

      Also, I’m a big fan of communication, so would much rather people tell me when they’re offended to my face, gently, of course, rather than disappear and give me no chance to change things. And that is a grace of the internet–the ability to fix things on the fly when you know you’ve screwed up. 🙂

  2. Hey Jan,

    By the time I read your post, the correction had been made, therefore I haven’t an inkling of the incident, but have made that faux pas before.

    I’m that empathetic ear for a while…sometimes a LONG while, and then talk a little reality with the person (trying not to hurt feelings further). Ultimately, it is an inside job.

    Thanks for the post!

    1. V, it’s so weird your comment was put on hold. Sorry about that. No idea how I can work out that glitch.

      I know you have to be okay with dark humor, because otherwise I would have offended you *years* ago. 😉 Even if you winced, though, I suspect you’d have given me the benefit of the doubt because you know me. A good argument for relationships, don’t you think?

      1. Funny, Vaughn!

        Also…I kept getting “awaiting moderation” at the WU site, even though I had posted many other times without having to wait. We (Therese and I) tried everything and finally “fixed” it by using another email address. Could never figure out why.

        1. Ah. I wondered what you two had done to solve the problem. I think it’s Comment Luv, because around the time I added it to this blog, it started to be fussy with long-time commenters.

          Oh, well.

  3. Jan, I missed the WU post, but I have no doubt you were well-intentioned and handled the situation with grace.

    As for supporting writer friends, I hope I’m helpfully sympathetic in all rejection situations even when I may not know exactly how it feels. But honestly, I know I can’t possibly understand on a deeper level unless I’ve been there and lived it. I’m reminded of that every time I experience something new and think, “Oh, that’s how that feels” and recognize a valuable lesson.

    And yet, we can’t possibly experience everything that everyone else has. Even in the case of rejections, are ours just the same? As many? As cutting? As personal? Did they focus on a particular vulnerability? Do they resonate the same way? As long as we listen, acknowledge and commiserate, that’s often all that someone wants.

    1. “And yet, we can’t possibly experience everything that everyone else has. Even in the case of rejections, are ours just the same? As many? As cutting? As personal? Did they focus on a particular vulnerability? Do they resonate the same way?”

      This is so true, Deborah, and something I know we all play with in fiction. Given context and character, what would be cause for celebration in one person’s world can be tragic in another. A good reminder that we can do our best and still fail to communicate.

    1. Again, what a great name you have. 😉

      It’s interesting what offends people. I understand when people don’t like dark humor, or if it’s profanity- or sexually-laced and the person’s values conflict. But I’ve seen people be offended that their sense of humor doesn’t match the author’s/speaker’s even though they might be the one person in the room not laughing. It’s almost like they think their tastes should be personally catered to.

      Ah, we are a funny species, aren’t we?

  4. Number 3 is something constantly on my mind. It actually felt really good to read your wise words. I know I can’t always provide what my friends need. When they hurt, I hurt. Waving a magic wand that makes the nightmare go away isn’t a real world option. And no matter how creatively I think, there’s only so many kind words to be said before they all begin to sound the same. Hugs are not enough, and even after a while commiserating silence becomes too heavy to bear.

    I missed the intro you’re talking about on WU, but the cultural thing–well, it’s really, really hard to friend people on a global scale and be aware of every nuance that triggers the unwanted knee-jerk reaction. And there are always those with pitchforks and axes inventing monsters to slay where none exist.
    Knowing you, you handled the situation with much grace, because that is who you are.

    1. Yes, I’ve noticed a kind of awkward dance in long-term relationships where the rejected one hasn’t hit some kind of workable solution. After a while, they become embarrassed or apologetic about their pain, even as they can’t help but express it, and their friends become avoidant. It’s hard to stay open, caring, yet know it’s really their job to handle. In this, it reminds me of caring for people who cope with addictions. What does *that* say about writing? (Or my perception of rejection, LOL?)

  5. Your words are wise. 🙂 Ultimately it is up to the person to figure it out. No matter how hard it is to watch, sometimes all you can do is wait for them to get it sorted on how they’ll deal. I protect myself by reminding myself their pain is not mine, even though some day (more likely than not) I may have to learn to deal with it myself. Hopefully, by helping them weather their storm, I’ll have some ideas of how to handle it myself.

    I thought you handled the post issue well. I winced, but only because I worried about how others might take it. I’m sorry it was not a good experience. You know about my post that got chewed on by the masses, and it was much the same. I felt misunderstood and there just didn’t seem to be any good way to handle it. I thought you did a remarkable job, showing both compassion and humility.

    1. I wish I could remember a phrase I learned in medicine when feeling overwhelmed by another’s pain. “Whose problem is it, anyway?” (Sounds callous, but is meant to keep an empathic person from tipping into compathy.)

      But thank you for the kind words, Lara!

      Also, now you’ve had a mass-chewing–heh, I would have left off the “m”–do you find your fear of the experience to be lessened? (Or maybe you’re one of those healthy people who don’t have anticipatory anxiety about a public smack-down.) Now that I’ve had it, granted it was relatively mild, I’m calmer. Weird, huh?

  6. I think one of the hardest thing to help people with is rejection from an agent or a publisher. I want to say, “It will happen. I know it!” But the truth is, it doesn’t happen for everyone–and that has to be okay, too. But that’s not an easy thing to say!

    1. Sadly true, Nina, though I still will say it in the case of someone with obvious talent whom I’m convinced just needs to hit the right person on the right day with the right project. So far, if they will persist, I don’t think I’ve been wrong.

  7. The best advice I received (which I posted in a WU thread) is to look up the reviews on your favorite book – whatever it is. Harry Potter, Gone with the Wind, The Grapes of Wrath – whatever it is. Before you read the negative reviews on your own book, read ALL the reviews on your favorite book: faves, lukewarm, and negative. This will help put it into perspective that even on a classic, well-beloved book, there are always people who don’t like it.

    That said, I’m one of those evil people who does (occasionally) post a negative review (or one that’s PERCEIVED as negative). I do try not to savage the author, since I’m one myself. But reality is, not EVERY book is good (especially self-pubbed, lightly edited ones). Every writer needs to consider what s/he is looking for, when putting a book out there. If you want unqualified admiration/support for your genius, do NOT self-pub a book (or submit offerings to agents/publishers), hire a therapist. It’ll be both cheaper and quicker.

    1. I could see that would be enormously helpful, Beverly!

      Was thinking of you as I read Seth Godin’s piece this morning: The Merchants of Average. It’s short, but here’s my favorite bit, which speaks to your point, I think. “They are the high school English teacher in love with his rubric and the book editor who needs you to fit in with the program. “That’s the way we do things around here.” They are the well-meaning productivity guru who wants you to get faster, not better, and the social media consultant who is driving with his rear-view mirror.”

  8. Dark humor works for me! I’m sorry you had to deal with negative comments – better than a negative review, but not much. As to the cultural issues, what I don’t know would fill a book. My problem is that I lived in England just long enough to absorb cultural references and idioms, which infiltrate my writing and drive my critique partners nuts. I can’t eliminate them because I usually don’t realize I’m using them.

    I’ve had to suffer through friends dealing with bad reviews – suffering on their behalf, that is. I want to jump in and say, “How dare you insult my friend?” but, of course, that would just make things worse.

    I know “they say” you should ignore negative comments and never, never engage the commenters, but that’s very hard to do. Possibly harder for a friend than for the insulted person, because my instinct is to fly into protective mode.

    Don’t apologize for being a Canadian – we should celebrate our differences. On that thought, I’ll leave you with George Takei:

    1. I love that Takei photo! My daughter shared it with me a month or so ago, and I thought it was hilarious at the time.

      Critical comments are hard to ignore on a blog, IMHO. For one thing, unless the circumstances are unusual, I reply to everyone who leaves a note. So not responding can look like shunning or evasion and has the potential to escalate friction.

      One *could* go the route of suppressing all critical feedback, but I don’t like to do that, unless it’s outright trollish and cruel behavior. I’m grateful to being a parent and my former job, because I would rather hear complaints than live with a silent rebellion, or worse. At least I think I feel this way, LOL.

      But yes, the viciousness and personal attacks that are out there on review sites…? Oy. Could give one a pretty low perception about human beings, and at times has made me very angry on behalf of my friends.

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