Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Criticism


                                                by Laura Crum

             
            I sometimes hear other writers, be they bloggers or more traditional authors, complain about those who criticize their work. This always leaves me puzzled. In my view, when we write for the public, whether it be a blog or a book, we are inviting criticism. We should expect it. If we don’t want to be criticized or have our work criticized, then we should not put our writing out to the public.
For instance, if I write a post about my approach to horses on this blog and get pleasant, supportive comments, it’s all very enjoyable. But it is perfectly possible that someone could comment, “I think you’re a poor writer, and I don’t think much of your approach to horses and you’re way too full of yourself and I wish you’d quit blogging.”
            Is that a troll? Not in my opinion. That’s someone who doesn’t care for me and/or my writing and has seen fit to criticize me. There is no abuse in what was said there (by the way, I made it up), and my response would likely be, “So what exactly offended you? What is it about my writing and attitude you don’t like?”
            I wouldn’t delete the comment, I wouldn’t feel threatened, and I would sure not think I should give up blogging because one (or a hundred) people didn’t like me or my work. Folks, that’s kind of the point of blogging. Discussion, pros and cons, agreement and disagreement. As long as no one threatens me or is abusive (foul language, ugly innuendos…etc) they can criticize all they want. It just makes it more interesting.
            Now obviously all bloggers don’t feel this way. Any comment that isn’t positive and supportive is construed as hurtful by some, and the person who said it is often called a troll. In my opinion, that’s ridiculous.
            I’ve been writing published novels for twenty years and have had plenty of negative reader reviews in my time. Even a few scathing ones…go look around on Amazon if you want to see them—not everyone has liked my books. So are these people trolls? Are they stalking me? Of course not. It’s called criticism. I expect it. Any professional writer gets used to it.
            Is criticism fun? No, its not. We all like it when people admire our writing and say nice things. No one likes to be told that his/her writing is awful. No one likes to hear personal criticism. But that IS going to happen once in awhile when you put your writing and your thoughts out to the public. People will hate what you said because it pushed a button in them, like a former fan of my work who was an independent single woman, and just hated it when I gave my protagonist a baby. You should have heard the nasty reviews she put up on Amazon. Of course I didn’t like it. But she’s darn sure entitled to her opinion. And you will never please all the people all the time.
            Sometimes criticism seems really unfair—when, for instance the critic is literally wrong, and no response is possible. I don’t mind readers who don’t like my books for a legitimate reason (didn’t care for the style or the plot or wanted a more heavyweight sort of book), but one reader gave my book a poor review on Amazon, saying that she raised horses and that my books were totally inaccurate and I needed to do more research. Yeah, that one annoyed me. I seriously wanted to ask her (quite publicly) to show me a horse-related detail that was inaccurate. You may not like my style or care for the way in which I describe horses, but my books are damn sure accurate in all horse-related details. However, there is no reasonable way to respond to such a reader review—that I know of. And so I fall back on my basic premise--expect criticism.
            If you speak your truth its best to be clear that at least a few people aren’t going to like it. And these people may decide to say so. That’s the price of putting your writing out to the public. If you don’t want to pay that price, well, don’t put your writing out to the public. It reminds me of famous actors who say they value privacy above all else. Huh? If you want privacy, don’t seek fame.
            What really gets me is bloggers who put stuff out there that clearly not everybody will agree with and then are hurt/upset when people “call” them on what they said. What exactly did they think was going to happen? If you assume an attitude of being “knowledgeable” on a subject, be it horses or whatever, and you say, however sweetly and gracefully, “This is how I do it, and I don’t like this other method,” which, of course, is just fine for you to say, you are inevitably going to find that someone thinks you’re all wrong, and if its “their” method you don’t like, they are likely to give you some grief along the lines of how ignorant you are. Is this a troll? Not unless they threaten you or use abusive language (in my opinion). Its called criticism. And again, if you don’t like it, you shouldn’t put your writing out to the public.
            Sure, sometimes people are critical just out of the desire to be nasty, and sure, sometimes certain bloggers get targeted by someone who doesn’t like them (though in some cases, it seems quite obvious why the blogger was targeted—if you say arrogant and/or derisive things on your blog someone is likely to take offense), and there isn’t anything pleasant about it. There’s nothing pleasant about reading an aggressively critical review of your book, either. But it comes with the territory. Again, minus threats or abusive language or infringement of your personal space, it’s all fair. And emails or blog comments are not infringement of your privacy. You cannot count how many negative emails I have gotten over the years on all kinds of topics—I replied politely to all of them, though I found it quite fair to rebut those who criticized me. As in, “You may not like it that my protagonist is not a traditional Christian, but I equally don’t like traditional Christians who assume that they are the only ones who are right.” And, to a miffed librarian, “Yes, my protagonist cusses when she’s in a stressful situation. So do I.”
            The thing is, you don’t have to read emails you don’t want to read, you can delete comments you don’t like. These people are doing you no real harm. And again, if this kind of attention is so upsetting to you, then it’s best not to put your writing and thoughts out to the public.
            OK, there’s my thoughts on this subject. I welcome all responses, including those who think I’m dead wrong and want to criticize me. Fire away.


            

20 comments:

Grey Horse Matters said...

I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said. Also, criticism isn't always a bad thing. The one thing to remember is not to take it personally. Everyone's got an opinion and they are free to express it whether we agree or not.

Laura Crum said...

GHM--That's a very good point. It's sometimes very hard not to take criticism personally, but I find that it is often more about the critic and his/her state of mind, as in the woman who was once my ardent fan and then wrote some very scathing reviews of my later books. She was emphatically a committed career woman and not a mother, and I believe she found it personally threatening that my protagonist puts her career on hold to raise her child. Those who were mothers themselves really liked these books--it's all about the taste of the beholder. And like most authors, I persist in thinking that those who like my books have good taste (!)

Promise said...

I agree - and I encounter similar things in my profession as a graphic designer. As a designer, you have to not only not get attached to work, but you have to develop a thick skin and learn to not take criticism personally...especially when the person is unable to articulate anything other than the very common "I don't like it." Ok, can you tell me why? "I don't know, I just don't like it." Really?!

Also, I'm not a mother, but I stick to my previous comments about your books -- I love that the characters are so real and relatable -- they could easily be the reader, or the reader's neighbor or best friend. And, I do hope Gail inspires you to write more...because I'm on the last book and dreading it being over!! :)

Calm, Forward, Straight said...

Agreed that it's a good idea to develop a thick skin if you put your writing out in public.

However, there are definitely people who interact on (hide behind) the internet with the sole intention of hurting feelings, causing strife and generally spreading negativity.

It's the authenticity and intention behind the comments that put them into this category. Disagreeing for the sake of being disagreeable is not the same as validly having a difference of opinion, wanting to initiate a dialogue.

After a while you can usually tell this type of individual right away, and as you said - not publishing the comment is an effective response. Attention is usually the goal anyway.

My experience has been almost universally good. Maybe part of it is you get back what you put out there...

Laura Crum said...

Promise--Yes, I had to learn the ability to work with editors and agents who "just didn't like it." That is pretty frustrating. But you learn to handle it, as you say. And thank you so much for the nice comments about my books--I'm touched that you don't want the series to be over.

CFS--Yes, I've seen these haters commenting on other blogs. They are no fun. I have not been attacked by them (yet) and I agree with you that part of it is that you get back what you put out there. They often comment on blogs where the blogger has put out some pretty arrogant high-handed judgements herself. I think if someone put repeated hateful comments on my blog posts with no intention other than being negative and this person refused to participate in reasonable dialogue about the subject at hand, I would delete the comments. But I am not threatened by those who disagree with me or dislike me or think I'm a poor writer. If they can stay reasonable and polite, I'm game to hear what they think.

Anonymous said...

I for one, love your blog! Especially reading about all the horses in your life (since I have never been able to have one myself) and seeing the beautiful scenery of coastal CA (I live in NE).

-Laurie

Laura Crum said...

Thank you, Laurie! Sharing photos of horses and scenery is one of my favorite parts of blogging. Glad you enjoy our blog.

Val said...

Criticism can't be avoided. As a teacher, I am aware that some students like me, some are indifferent, and a few really dislike me and my personality/teaching style/clothing (they are middle school students!).

You know what I find annoying? I don't like it when bloggers criticize themselves. For example, a rider posts pictures of herself riding and then proceeds to list all the imperfections present. I do not mind if the person mentions good with the bad, but total self-deprecation is not very flattering.

Laura Crum said...

Val--That's an interesting point. I never thought about it, but some bloggers do seem to like to do the self-critical thing. For me the most annoying is the holier-than-thou bloggers.

And if you teach middle school you are both brave and able to deal with criticism as well as any author. That's a tough gig (I was a teacher in my distant past). Thanks for the comment.

Breanna said...

I'm going to have to disagree with you on some of this. Criticism to a point is good and definitely you should have a thick skin if you are blogging or publishing books, but I find it really irritating when commenters on a blog have nothing nice to say and just seem bent on putting down the person writing (such as telling them they shouldn't write any more!) If it bothers them that much, why are they reading?? Go somewhere else and let the rest of us enjoy it!

AareneX said...

Laura makes a good point...and so do the commenters here! See, this is why I hang out in the blogosphere when I'm supposed to be writing. It's all y'all's fault when I miss deadlines.

I think the "feedback" problem that bugs me most is the person (blogger, Facebooker, email, or F2F acquaintence) who clearly has a problem, articulates the issue clearly, asks for help, and then turns to draw blood on anyone who offers a suggestion. I've got no time for that.

OTOH, I'm always happy when somebody catches my attention and says, "hey, I've noticed this and I think that if you try this other thing it might be good." Subtlety gets lost on me, people--if you have advice, please be direct, and that includes criticism.

"I don't like it" isn't helpful. Offer some options that you like better, or go away. Either is good.

And BTW, Laura: I never mind when fictional characters have a life that is different from the life I choose. If I wanted to read about stuff that is the same as my life, I'd just read my own blog over-and-over. >g<

Laura Crum said...

Breanna--Thank you so much for disagreeing--I was hoping somebody would. In response I would say that blog commenters who just want to put the blogger down ARE annoying, and, as I said in an earlier response, I would delete comments that are meant only to be nasty. But that's the point. You can delete them. No big deal. Its certainly true that those commenters are not very nice people and the blogosphere would be better without them. BUT...that was the point of my post. Those people exist and they will/can respond to your written work, be it blog or book. I think bloggers and authors should be prepared to deal with this sort of response, because it does happen. Not everyone will like your work, and some may say so quite forcefully. If you write a somewhat inflammatory blog piece and people respond negatively, I think it is absolutely ridiculous to follow with a whiny blog post about how everyone is picking on you (which is what inspired this post of mine).

Aarene--I agree with your points--you are spot on. But the point of my post, as I said just now, was not that negative criticism is good or useful or accurate (though it can be). It is rather that negative and even nasty criticism WILL happen if you write for the public long enough (in my case, 20 years). I think you should expect this, and not be too rattled by it--otherwise being an author can be a real ordeal.

White Horse Pilgrim said...

As a writer feedback from people who might just be customers can be really useful, certainly if one's aim is to write for a market. Of course that depends on there being a measure of the constructive present. However there is a significant minority of mean-spirited and psychologically damaged people out there who get a kick from doing what they expect will offend and hurt. There are people who criticise wantonly because they envy our ability to write. There are trolls circulating too, fortunately for us politics interests most of them much more than horses.

Yes, of course to a large extent people are entitled to their opinions. What I do find annoying are the liars and deceivers. I haven't forgotten comments from a Holocaust-denier concerning a historical article that she didn't like. (It was worse that, so far as I could tell, she was a high school history teacher!) I will argue back with such people, and I will delete comments that spread falsehood.

At least if a reader doesn't like what a character is doing you can be sure that they have engaged with the book. There's enough description to make the plot real for the reader. That they don't agree with the course you have charted is a bit of a detail really. That's their problem.

Laura Crum said...

WHP--Yes, the critics who are just plain wrong (like the supposed horsewoman who said in her Amazon review that the horse related details in my novels were not accurate) are supremely annoying. And yes, I would sure have deleted that inaccurate review if I had the power. But there's the rub. Unlike blog comments, there are many venues (such as Amazon) where people can say what they think (whether positive, negative or just plain wrong) and the author can do nothing about it. So again, its best to expect that you are likely to get some negative (and even irrational) responses when you write for public consumption.

I agree that the woman who SO disliked my protagonist becoming a mother was reacting that way because she had strongly identified with the character. So maybe this is a backhanded compliment? I can choose to look at it that way, any way.

Susan said...

I had a woman review my book who took offense at my describing saddling a horse when it was unnecessary for her as she already knew how to do it. That was her entire basis for a mediocre review. I never engage reviewers, but what I would have liked to ask her is whether I did a good job with the description. Could she follow the process if she wasn't a horse person?

Then another reviewer must have decided she wasn't going to like the book before she read it because her review left both my husband and I scratching our heads. It was like she tried to come up with something bad to say, bur couldn't.

Each to his or her own, just like you said.

Laura Crum said...

Susan--Yep, that is so true. Some people will not like your book (or your blog post) for obscure reasons and it is pointless to worry about it. Its a big lesson that I believe everyone who writes for the public would do well to learn.

wilhelmina hs said...

Hi, I read your posts about Greg Scheers and I was wondering whether you knew where he is riding/teaching now? I am planning on changing stable this coming summer, I've heard a lot of good about him and I too am riding in the area you are.. :) Thank you so much!

Laura Crum said...

wilhelmina--I never posted about Greg Scheers--I don't even know who he is. So I think you're confusing me with another blogger. Good luck.

Jane said...

I've enjoyed reading the post and the comments.
I write. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad, sometimes it's "eh". I have had to smack myself in the forehead when someone called me on my grandstanding on a controversial topic...speaking as if I were the bearer of The One True Answer. That was humbling. But I appreciated the chance to haul myself up, check my ID (oh no, NOT God!) I apologized to readers for my bad manners, and thanked my criticizer.
I'm not always going to agree with the criticism, but I don't always agree with the praise either!

Laura Crum said...

Jane--I really enjoy your writing in the blog posts I've read from you. You have a wonderful light and witty touch--as your comment illustrates. And I agree with you--though I may not agree with some criticism, I sometimes don't agree with praise either.