On taking it personally

Some of my readers may not have the background for this post, so let me just start off with a few links to bring folks up to speed. There has been drama in Internet Bookland between YA authors and reviewers. In the fewest words possible: Authors, feeling hurt by reviews, have lashed out at reviewers. Reviewers have lashed back. It’s been widespread and notable enough that there was an article in The Guardian about it. Numerous writers and reviewers have blogged about it as well. Here’s an analysis I found fair and insightful.

I have written this post in my head a dozen times, and it keeps coming out very blame-y. Usually blaming authors, even though I am one. Maybe because I am one, and can see where the fault lines are in myself. Reviewers are going to review; authors can choose how or whether to respond. That post gets preachy and prescriptive, though, and that’s no good.

All I can do, honestly, is talk about myself and my own responses. If there are any useful tips here that anyone can take away, great. If this leads to a general consensus of OMG Rachel’s a weirdo, that is also fine. In fact, I’ll lead the chorus because I think I have a pretty deep insight into just how weird I am.

Bad reviews hurt. Heck, I’ve even been hurt by good reviews. I’m talented that way.

I can take anything personally, and probably have. You name it. The Wii telling me I can’t jump. The dog eating poo. The weather.

I am hypersensitive. That’s one of the reasons I’m a writer. In fact, I’d venture to say hypersensitivity is a useful trait for any kind of artist. It’s what compels me to create, and what gives my creations depth and emotional resonance. It’s what enables me to put words together in interesting and unexpected ways. Maybe it’s part of why I have so many ideas; all I require is the faintest feeling, the barest breath of nuance, to see all the myriad potentials therein.

I’m quick to laugh and quick to cry. The same trait that lets me feel a sunset intensely also means I can be easily hurt.

It’s funny because it isn’t: the drama has generated many exhortations to authors to Be Professional! when ironically our profession demands that we feel things intensely. Feeling is part of my job, ha ha! Feeling isn’t destiny, though, however fast and sometimes overwhelmingly it comes over me. I can let it control me, or I can take some time and deliberately decide how to act.

It was becoming a mom that really forced me to face the issue: it became imperative that I find a way to protect myself from such easily hurt feelings. One cannot afford to take a three-year-old personally. That is the fast track to madness. A three-year-old has lungs of steel, is incapable of reason, and has surprisingly little sense of self-preservation.

Mine used to scream: “I blame you out of the universe!”

The only reason I’m still here, in the universe, is that I developed specific strategies for dealing with it without having my feelings hurt all the time. I would listen (with my heart, not my ears) for the unspoken truth beneath his words. He would scream, “I hate you!” but I would hear, “I so mad I’m going to say the most hurtful thing I can think of to say!” There was always a big emotion there, and that emotion was the truth, and it did not entail a judgement on me. It was about him.

I won’t pretend he never got to me. I had a hard and fast rule for myself, however: never hurt the child. Ever. That was the bottom line, no matter how angry he made me. I had a lot of different strategies for calming down when I got mad – friends to call, a supportive spouse, putting him in a safe place while I went in the other room and had a little tantrum of my own. Long vigorous walks. Sanity breaks.

Navigating his storms was a discipline, and one I apply to all kinds of potentially hurtful things. Bad drivers. Rude grocery clerks. Trolls. Bullies. And yes, reviews – good, bad, and indifferent. I work at not taking them personally; it requires vigilance, but it’s doable. There will always be bad days when I fail, of course, but in those situations I have learned to recognize what’s happening and to walk away. And the bottom line is what it always was: no hitting back. Not even if a reviewer snatches my glasses right off my face and throws them across the parking lot.

Er. Sorry. Toddler-parenting flashback. I do not miss those days.

For the record, I love that boy with everything I’ve got; I always have, and I always will. And I love reviews, reviewers, and online book-discussion forums, even when they sting a bit.

The dog, on the other hand, is totally out to get me.

Here’s one last thing to think about: one of the reasons I write is because I am so easily wounded. Writing is synthesis and transformation, a way to heal and make sense of things, a way to spin dreck into gold.

I lie down with hurt, I wake up with art. As far as I’m concerned, that’s what it’s all about.

20 thoughts on “On taking it personally

  1. Drake spent a substantial part of her third year on this earth refusing to look at her father. She would turn her head and hold up a “talk to the hand” hand if they passed each other. It was really weird. We don’t know why she did it. She doesn’t remember doing it. It was just her way of controlling her world. Of course, she suddenly adored her father again when he was willing to play the part of human jungle gym. Go figure.

    Needless to say, it upset him. A lot.

    Frankly, I’m stupidly impressed at the coping system you’ve developed, (for both toddlers and reviewers.) Rather than taking the seemingly easy route (getting liquored up, lashing back) you’ve chosen to try and understand what’s really going on. You, my dear, are the reason they invented the word awesomesauce.

  2. THIS is one of the best, most honest things you’ve ever written! Or at least it speaks to me in a way that leads me to think that it is. I’m definitely planning to let Tommy read this, because I suspect he might become a writer when he grows up and he seems to be exactly like the over-sensitive, writer type you describe.

    • Thank you for saying so. It was scary to write, so I think you may be on to something. For sure let Tommy read it, but don’t be worried if he doesn’t get it right away (or can’t apply it). These things are learned with time and experience. Being exposed to the idea will make it easier to have that serendipitous moment later on, where suddenly he really understands it on a deep level.

      B is super sensitive too, which is part of why he was a challenging toddler. All those feelings, and no place to put them! He draws a lot, that seems to be his outlet and his way of putting his head back in order. I’m SO glad he has that, but it took a long time for us to get there.

  3. I admit that I don’t follow GoodReads, but my question is…why are people acting like this is new? There have been nasty reviews, written by amateurs and widely available, at least as long as Amazon has been around. I always used to tell my authors not to read their Amazon reviews — advice I didn’t actually expect them to follow, but if I told them that, then maybe they’d at least refrain from responding to the negative Amazon reviews, because that never ends well. (One author, before I could stop him, posted his own review announcing that anyone who would give his book a negative review was “too stupid” to be reading it in the first place. I’m sure that got him lots of additional sales.)

    So it’s not that I’m unsympathetic to the parties in this situation, but why is this blowing up now, as opposed to ten years ago?

    • I’m not sure, Brian. I suspect some of it has to do with the community nature of Goodreads. People don’t just post their $0.02 about a book and leave. People make real friends there, and when an author butts in and says something rude, all of a sudden there are a whole bunch of people leaping in to the reviewer’s defense.

      Maybe? I have a good imagination, so I can think of lots of things to blame. I wonder whether the economy being bad means that authors are more anxious about the economic impact of bad reviews than they used to be, for example. I wonder whether YA authors as a group are younger than authors on average, and don’t have the perspective or experience to just stay out of it. I wonder lots of things, frankly.

      • Ah, I think I’m seeing it now. I didn’t really know what GoodReads was, but I bet it’s one of those sites that seems smaller than it actually is. I’ve seen this sort of thing before…you’re on a site where it feels like it’s just you and 20 other people you’ve met on the site, except it’s actually public. So when discussing something or someone of a public nature, the group sometimes speaks as one would in private. Then when the public person in question turns up to respond, things get…awkward. Wagons get circled, and if the public person isn’t particularly adept at responding…yeah. I’m reminded of the West Wing episode with the “LemonLymon.com” plotline (which is worth finding on YouTube just because Allison Janney is so very, very awesome). I guess the Internet really doesn’t change all that much.

  4. I found your post on Facebook (Susan!) and it’s very interesting. As a reviewer I know that most of us (who I know or follow) don’t want to write negative reviews. Reviewing is a hobby (a fun one) so I only read books I’m planning on enjoying. I do think there is a difference between a negative review and a critical one. I think bloggers tend towards critical over negative. We want authors, publishers, etc. to want us to review their books in the hopes of getting advanced (or just free) copies of books.(reading 100 books a year gets pricey) A review on my blog is always, in the end, my opinion. I let my readers know what I thought and why. Purely negative reviews are as meaningless as purely positive review. Nobody looking for an honest opinion of a book is going to respect a review along the lines of “this book sucks”. But in the end, it’s all just opinion.

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