“What other culture could have produced someone like Hemingway and not seen the joke?”
I have to be honest with you; the above quote makes me despise Vidal, but my loyalty to Ernest Hemingway makes my opinion irrelevant and unreliable. In general, I think critics have a place at the table, as long as their dissection is supported by the work. For better or worse, our online culture has given everyone a platform for expression, and that sometimes turns personal, especially because contemporary authors are so accessible.
Since the publication of my novels, I have received some touching and beautiful reader correspondence. It would be dishonest, however, if I tried to pretend it has all been pleasant. Some of the worst emails (which are mercifully few and far between) have left me quaking with anger and longing to respond in an equally venomous fashion; however, my mentors have advised me never to respond to nastiness. So what do I do? After I call off the dogs (aka, my husband, family, and best friends), and talk myself out of making a little pin doll for the offender, I write a response to the email and then delete it.
In talking with other published writers, I have learned this is a common problem, so I sought out the advice of some of my favorite authors—who just happen to be some of my co-contributors on GRAND CENTRAL (Berkley/Penguin, July 2014), an anthology of post WWII stories set at Grand Central Terminal. These writers have advice from the feisty to the Zen for dealing with unpleasant correspondence or reviews that I hope will help you once your work is public. I know it has helped me.
From Kristina McMorris, bestselling author of The Pieces We Keep:
“For me, the most helpful way of recovering from a bad review is to immediately read a slew of one-star reviews of my all-time favorite novels — because how could any sane person not love those books, right?! It quickly reminds me just how subjective reading is, and that an author’s words are responsible for only half of a reader’s experience; the other half comes from the reader’s own life, thoughts, and history.”
From Jenna Blum, New York Times bestselling author of Those Who Save Us:
“My most Zen response is to remember that when people flame you out of the blue, the more vitriolic the content, the more that person is suffering some kind of pain. And you just happen to be the target. As writers we are expected to some degree to put our hands in the stocks and allow readers to throw tomatoes at us. That’s called freedom of opinion, and usually I let it slide.
However, sometimes with the really vicious reader letters, I can’t help spending several hours rehearsing mental responses (and sometimes verbal ones, which I try to save for rants in the shower), and when I find the matter occupying this much real estate in my head, I do write back.
I’ve sometimes gotten an apology, more often silence. But I feel good about letting people know that they’re not just writing into a void, they’re writing to an actual person, and their words have an effect–even as I hope mine do, in a less damaging way, of course!”
From Pam Jenoff, international bestselling author of The Kommandant’s Girl:
“I usually respond with a polite: ‘I always appreciate the chance to learn from my readers'” Then I cry (sometimes.) I often look the reviews of bestselling books on Amazon and take solace that they receive the same kinds of criticism as I do. I also have my writing students go on amazon and read the cruddy things people say about my books so that they are less afraid to share their writing with me.”
From Sarah McCoy, international bestselling author of The Baker’s Daughter:
“The first time I ever cried myself to page burning was after one grueling MFA workshop wherein, per protocol, I was forbidden to speak during the entire 3-hour story dissection. It was the equivalent of having your newborn cut out of your belly and you aren’t allowed to make a meep. I felt physical pain hearing my friends, fellow creative writers and comrades in the fiction-scape say things like, ‘It just didn’t work for me.’ No explanation. I learned then that what works and doesn’t is entirely subjective. Yes, some may agree that X is good and Y is bad literature; but more and more I’m finding that even when nearly all the world says Y is not good, there are those who believe passionately that Y should win the Pulitzer. So… who am I to judge or complain? I can’t lie. I read all the reviews. But I try to remind myself that these are readers—my readers—graciously reading my work and taking the time to write their opinions. That alone is worthy of respect. The bonus is that unlike my MFA colleagues, I don’t have to have drinks with them afterward and pretend I’m not bleeding out.”
From Karen White, New York Times bestselling author of The Time Between:
“First of all, I remind myself that anything that’s beyond constructive criticism and borders on just plain mean spiritedness is not about me or my writing. It’s about THEM. For somebody to take out their problems on somebody they’ve never met means we should feel sorry for them.
Then, I picture either a) making a voodoo doll or b) putting a burning bag of dog poop on their doorstep.
I never EVER respond. Instead, I put them in a file I’ve labeled WTF promising myself that one day, when I’m too old to care anymore, I will publish them. Then I hit the trusty delete button–and I feel like I’ve put their vitriol down the garbage disposal where it belongs.”
From Melanie Benjamin, New York Times bestselling author of The Aviator’s Wife:
“The truth is, I’ve worked hard to develop a thick skin and short term memory about many aspects of publishing, including harsh comments. Honestly, I read them, and yes, maybe at the moment I might get upset or angry but within an hour, I’ve truly forgotten about it! I can’t recall any of these emails or comments now. I’ve learned to remember the good ones, and let the bad ones just ping off of me. It takes time to do this, though; with my first couple of books, I did allow these things to upset me for far longer. I also instantly “delete” anything unpleasant or throw it out of my house immediately – I started doing that when I was first trying to get published and received rejection letters. Maybe that’s my own personal brand of voodoo?”
If you have published work, how do you respond to venom? Do you have any other suggestions?