You Are Not Your Work

Stephanie Lenz
The Snark Zone: Letters from the Editors


Moon and Stars
Photo Credit: Dennis Stauffer

The sign of an amateur is to answer your critics. Don’t ever write a letter to a bad review because then, first of all, people didn’t even know about it the first time, maybe, and then the critic gets to answer you and put you down again. I learned a long time ago, only an amateur answers his critics. Read the bad reviews once, the good ones twice, and put them all away and never look at them again. —John Waters

Kathleen Hale is a novelist and essayist with an impressive credential list and a book published by Harper Collins. She tracked down a Goodreads reviewer who posted a negative review of her work, went to a house she believed belongs to the woman who wrote the review, called her on the phone, and chased her all over social media. Then she wrote an article about what she did for The Guardian. Hale owns up to her behavior, which plays into her brand.

“Other authors warned me not to do this,” Hale writes about the act of reading her book’s reviews at Goodreads. Goodreads specifically states that authors not “engage with people who give you negative reviews.”

I read the reviewer’s comments and they’re about the work: the quality of the writing, the language, the characters. The reviewer never attacks the author.

In a previous Snark Zone, I wrote about not responding to critiques and my opinion remains the same. I wrote that responding to critiques about a finished work is akin to standing in the bookstore arguing with your reader. I’d like to modify that: arguing with someone who critiques your work is like walking into her bedroom and yelling at her while she holds your book on her lap. A reviewer’s comments on Goodreads or Amazon are just as personal as the ones on her own blog or social media page. Every reader has the right to an opinion and to express her opinion in her own space. Everyone else has the right to disagree or agree with that opinion in his own space. No one deserves to be stalked.

No one deserves to be mocked either. Margo Howard argues in a scathing piece for The New Republic: “These people [Amazon Vine reviewers] were not reviewing my book, they were reviewing me. Or rich people. Or something. And Amazon gave them the tools, through Vine, to damage my book for the casual browser. I can see the value—maybe—for man-on-the-street reviews of cold cream and pots and pans, but books?! Especially by people who collect free stuff, feel important because they’re getting this swag, and, forgive me, do not sound in the least like well-read people to begin with.”

As a Vine reviewer myself, I find that offensive. Reviewers didn’t “damage” her book. The reviews they wrote may have affected her book’s sales but the book itself remains exactly the same. The author, however, does not. And that’s where we come back to what I wrote nearly three years ago and what I learned as a nascent writer nearly twenty-five years ago: you are not your work.

Your work can represent you. It tells the world what you have to say. It isn’t interchangeable with you as a human being. If someone writes “I do not like this story” it doesn’t necessarily mean “I do not like this author.” It could but it’s not a given. What’s more, “I do not like this author” is more likely to mean “I don’t like this author’s writing” rather than “I wouldn’t spit on this author’s gums if his mouth were on fire.”

Rejection is part of being a writer. If your work isn’t being rejected, you’re not taking enough chances. I reject submissions every day from writers whose bios make me say “We should have a cup of coffee together.” Every single writer who sends a serious submission to Toasted Cheese has my respect. Submitting for publication shows vulnerability as well as confidence. It’s a brave act to click “send” and subject your art to someone else’s opinion.

The knife cuts both ways. Authors walk a line when satisfying readers through compelling story and characters. We want to say what we want without fear of a reader showing up on our lawns demanding that we tell the story they want to have told. From Arthur Conan Doyle to Charlaine Harris, fanatical followers have threatened writers (see also Stephen King’s Misery).

There are reviewers who use sites like Goodreads to wage an attack against an author and sometimes that attack does become personal. Thankfully those reviewers are not the majority and some recourse is available to authors when the reviewer crosses the line. In some cases, bad reviews can affect a writer’s livelihood but we have to learn how to balance our reputations in the literary world against our desire to respond to a few low-star reviews.

Bad behavior by authors and readers is nothing new. Conflict between artist and reviewer isn’t unusual. It’s all well and good to point at authors and reviewers and say “This needs to stop” but it’s another thing to actually make it stop. No one wants to take away emerging platforms for authors to engage with readers. No one wants critique of published work to be incomplete or dishonest due to fear of repercussion. So where do we begin?

The adage “develop a thick skin” is good advice but it can’t happen without going through the exact process for which we’re trying to develop that thick skin. You must be rejected. Repeatedly. You must not only be knocked down, you must get up knowing that you’ll be knocked down again.

One way we can help ourselves—reader and writer alike—is to change our language. As I wrote above, Goodreads has an author guideline page that reads “Don’t engage with people who give you negative reviews.” Better wording would be “…who give your book” rather than “you.” The language intertwines the work and its creator. We should do our best to refer to our work separately from ourselves.

I think it circles back to “you are not your work.” It’s a simple sentence but a concept that’s hard to accept, understand, and implement. Writers, like all artists, are passionate people. With time and experience, we learn to temper our passion, which is harder to do when we perceive someone attacking our efforts. What took us so long to create, someone can tear down with a few words. It hurts and it often feels like it’s not fair. But we can’t control what someone else says about our work (or us). All we can do is put out the best possible work and and let our actions and personal character show who we are.

Besides, there’s always the option of turning our critics into characters—a very writerly brand of revenge.

pencilEmail: baker[at]toasted-cheese.com

 

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