For the last few months, I’ve watched a tragedy unfold on goodreads. An author (who I will leave nameless) has been getting bad reviews of a book that they are proud of. Instead of ignoring the reviews, they have gone on the attack on Twitter. The readers don’t understand that the book, is an adult fantasy, nor how to read one, they say. Readers are prejudiced against the writer’s queerness. Really, their constant refrain is, the book is highly original, and a work of staggering genius. The defensiveness irritates some readers so much that a few have gone so far as to down-vote the book in response. The whole story has an inevitability that makes it a classic example of how not to respond to criticism.
Oh, I understand the urge to respond. Who isn’t proud of their published works? However, I have one advantage that most would-be writers lack: for years I’ve made my living through articles about open source software and the community that builds it. A more outspoken audience doesn’t exist. I’ve even had three stalkers, each of whom for a time apparently had nothing better to do than nitpick my every publication. For sheer survival, I quickly learned to develop the hide of a rhinoceros.
So how do I cope? Unlike some writers, I don’t just ignore comments. I’m too curious for that. But I have developed a basic strategy that allows my continued survival.
The first thing I do is consider the validity of comments. If I’ve made a mistake, I accept it. Sometimes I even thank the commenter. But if what I’ve said is taken out of context or misunderstood, I don’t waste time worrying. Once, for instance, I wrote something like, “I don’t believe that there are many differences between men and women. However, after reviewing this product from an all-women team, I have to change my mind.” No sooner was the article posted than some wrote a lengthy reply explaining to me why the first sentence was wrong and how I obviously wasn’t married (which I was) — and ignored the second sentence altogether. Once I noticed that, I could safely ignore the comment, except to laugh. Often, readers will bring things to a criticism that are only remotely related to what you actually write, and this case was one of those times.
Another question I bring to comments is whether there is any consensus, or even a substantial response that is not what I intend. If there is, then I will revise when I can to eliminate any faults or misunderstandings. But if there’s no prevailing experience, I can largely the response. I had one story that was called both communist and captitalist and feminist and misogynist. Since to be all those things at the same time is generally impossible, I could safely conclude that, once again, readers were voicing things they brought to the story, rather than responding to attitudes that the story actually contained.
Whenever possible, I try not to respond to any comments. I always would rather move on to a new story than rehash an old one. Still, sometimes the comment was based on a false premise that might mislead other readers. In such cases, I have a two response rule. In the first response, I correct the comment as needed. If the commenter responds, I reassert my corrections and end by saying that I will not be responding further. In both responses, I do my best to stay polite, even when insulted. If I still waste time with the two response rule, I avoid wasting even more time by being drawn into an endless flame war — all the while satisfying my too-human need to defend myself without going to extremes.
You may develop a different strategy, but if you are going to survive as a writer, you do need one that will leave you looking professional. I don’t know how the story of the writer on goodreads will end, but their reaction to criticism may have sunk that book of which they are so proud, and just might have labeled them as too difficult for agents and publishers to deal with. No one likes to have their work criticized, but if you develop a layer of rhino hide, at least you can look professional.