You’ve Got Hate Mail: How to Deal with (Annoying) Critics

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Note from Jane: Today’s guest post is by publisher and author L.L. Barkat (@llbarkat). She has one of the most gracious and welcoming personalities in the online space—so I’m delighted she’s written about how she maintains a calm and open demeanor even when faced with difficult or antagonistic personalities.


In a career decision that might look, to some, like a reversal of my call for many experienced writers to stop blogging, I recently took an unpaid position as a Huffington Post Books blogger. I’ve never claimed to be predictable.

One of my first tasks, apparently, was to find a critic—a confident person who would tell me my post on The Capitalistic Quandary of Poetry was no “call to arms” and that the post had used a straw man argument, because all I did was present an overview of what’s been happening with poetry over the last few years. I did not, it was pointed out, delve deeply into the issue of capitalism and poetry. Furthermore, my critic asserted, it was a tenuous job indeed, to use something against itself (in this case, to use anti-capitalism to promote a capitalistic advance).

I’ll let any further details rest. The key is my critic was unhappy and somehow also managed to cap the comment with what could potentially be perceived as a condescending recommendation for what I might want to write about in the future, since I seemed to be “clearly enthusiastic about poetry.”

I might. Be enthusiastic about poetry, that is. This could be required for the owner of a small press that actually publishes…poetry. It might be a necessary qualification for the managing editor of a large poetry site that covers, among other things, the issues this critic felt I should put my hand to (particularly how to teach poetry more effectively). Enough about me. Let’s talk about my critic (and yours).

Now the first thing you have already ascertained is that I have no problem with a writer being annoyed with his or her critics. I think it is obvious that, whether or not it is justified, I was initially annoyed with mine. The act is not called criticism for nothing, and there is every reason to dislike or be irritated by it. See Merriam Webster, and you might agree:

crit·i·cism: the act of expressing disapproval and of noting the problems or faults of a person or thing

Add to this that the critic has, too often, not taken the time to separate the person (you) from the critique, and has not seen it as his job to say anything complimentary along the way, and you have something potentially hurtful on your hands. So the role of maturity must fall to you (and me). What do we do when we attract a critic?

1. Let them charm you.

I like to remember that just as my critic has only stepped into a slice of my life and my thinking, so have I, through their comment or review, only stepped into a slice of theirs. I view myself as fairly charming, but in the case where I’ve attracted a critic, I’ve not managed to charm. My critic has the same issue in regards to his relationship with me—I am not charmed. But I could be, given a little humanity.

For my own career, and for all of the authors who work with us at T.S. Poetry Press, I recommend stepping back and remembering the bigger picture. Who knows what’s going on with our critics? The writing touched something inside them, and they responded. This doesn’t make them the bad guys, and if we met them under any other circumstance, we might easily be having coffee and sharing laughs.

2. Ask good questions.

The critic has zeroed in on something interesting, no doubt (and, in a bit of irony, may really need to write about it!). If you feel like engaging, why not ask questions, like: If it was your piece, how would you have structured it differently? If you were to argue for xyz, what would you highlight instead? Did you find anything of value in the piece, and, if so, what was it? What is your interest in this aspect of the topic (the part being critiqued), and why?

3. Understand the compliment.

In a piece called The Perverse Monstrosity of Our Beautiful Art, I once played with the idea that criticism is a form of compliment. It means we have chosen a topic worth discussing (or painting, or building) and done it in such a way that has actually had an impact, albeit not a positive one for the critic. Bland ideas, useless ideas, completely confusing ideas, these rarely draw criticism. They aren’t worth a critic’s time. Take the compliment.

4. Don’t retaliate.

Stalk your critic? I don’t recommend doing what this writer has done, unless you plan on writing about it in The Guardian. But every day, writers retaliate in less complex ways. You might view the piece I am writing now as a form of retaliation. If so, I might end up asking you why. In my view, retaliation aims to hurt the critic rather than engage with what the critic has said, or use his or her comments to learn something. Real retaliation results in more pain and no illumination. Just don’t.

5. Re-evaluate why you write (for dialog, or approval?).

In the book Creativity Inc., Ed Catmull of Pixar discusses their director’s notes meetings, which can feel highly conflictual but are absolutely necessary for building the best movies they possibly can. His advice? See alternate opinions as additive versus competitive.

Sure, your critic may not have couched his opinion in a palatable form, but that doesn’t mean it’s not additive. I like to consider what the critic has just added to a conversation I started (and which, if I understand my place properly, I realize is also something additive, unless I am discussing alien matters from the outer limits of the universe, as yet untouched, unknown.)

If you are writing for approval rather than dialog, it can be very difficult to see a critic’s words as additive. Of course we all love approval, to varying degrees, but if that is the center of the reason we write, we might want to avoid writing for platforms that tend to draw more critics, and, if we are an author, we might decide not to read our reviews. I’m not going to suggest that it’s a bad idea to write for approval; writing appeals to various writers for different reasons. I am going to say, “Know thyself.” Act accordingly. And maybe at least consider how critique can be additive.

I am considering going to AWP this spring. Word has it my critic might be there. I’m thinking to invite her to coffee—and poetry.

Posted in Guest Post, Marketing & Promotion and tagged , .

L.L. Barkat

L.L. Barkat is the author of six books, including Love, Etc: Poems of Love, Laughter, Longing & Loss; The Novelist: A Novella; and Rumors of Water: Thoughts on Creativity & Writing (twice named a Best Book of 2011). Her poems have appeared at Best American Poetry, VQR, NPR, and Every Day Poems. She is the founder of T.S. Poetry Press and Managing Editor of Tweetspeak Poetry.

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14 Comments on "You’ve Got Hate Mail: How to Deal with (Annoying) Critics"

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Every Day Poems

Jane, thank you for that kind introduction. I think the Internet has given us real challenges for figuring how to maintain our humanity, in so many ways. It takes extra thought to conduct events and communication the way we more naturally do in ordinary face-to-face community, and I think we’re still figuring it out.

SimplyDarlene

LL –

Interestingly whenever someone cuts me off in traffic or is rude in any number of ways, I wonder what’s gone wrong in their day. Most likely what they’ve done or said has nothing at all to do with me… and that’s the tone I felt from the get-go of this piece.

It was subtle, and I went back to find it, but I like how you made your story ours – I & my and then we & ours.

(You are the best question asker I know.) 🙂

Every Day Poems

So much to be learned in a question. I don’t know that I have always been a question asker. I do believe that is one very positive thing the Internet has led me to.

That’s it, too, yes? If we could all see each other somehow in each others’ stories, it might go a long way to creating deeper (and more understanding) conversations.

Sandra Heska King
I haven’t gotten any “hate mail.” Yet. The closest was an email from a woman who was concerned that she didn’t see a Bible in a photo I posted of a stack of books I used to create some spine poetry. She told me to consider if I was paying too much attention to words other than The Word. She told me she’d pray for me. And then she unsubscribed from my blog. It bothered me for a long time–until Karen Swallow Prior told me it was okay to be promiscuous about books. 🙂 I’m pretty sure, though, that this… Read more »
Every Day Poems

I think there is a place for all kinds of writing, but it is an interesting question to pose to oneself if we are never criticized for what we write. I’m going to count your spine poetry pile as a “win.” 🙂

Ernie Zelinski
Fact is, the more successful you become the more critics and hate mail you will attract. For example, this is an email that I received not that long ago: From: bob curt To: Ernie Zelinski Sent: Thursday, March 20, 2014 11:36:28 AM Subject: leach “Ernie…you know of course that you are a leach on society. A friend gave me your book and after reading the preface and skimming the table of contents I read no further. You are proud to be a leach on society by not working, but in fact you are part of capitalism by writing your books… Read more »
Every Day Poems

Oh my. What an email! So, did you ignore it entirely?

Love this:

“A non-doer is very often a critic.”

Then I am also curious if you see any role for a critic at all. (And are all critics neurotic?)

Tom Bryson

If you think the criticism is rational, thoughtful,yes, respond if you wish. You don’t have to.
If you think it’s troll-like, mad, stupid – don’t respond. Never give oxygen to fools.
Tom

Every Day Poems

Great saying. Keeping that one 🙂

archangel
youre very kind LL, and thoughtful. Thanks. And Ernie, you’re grit is appreciated. My experience is being cussed at in all 38 languages I’m published in, lol. And I agree, no response is often the righteous action, also the least likely to solicit/elicit escalation. The word ‘troll’ seems to me to be a misnomer. In mythos and fairytales, trolls are hardly more than annoyances guarding their tiny plat of the forest and demanding a toll be paid them to cross through their postage stamp sized garden or over their foot bridge or whatever. More so, just my .02, one might… Read more »
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[…] Note from Jane: Today's guest post is by publisher and author L.L. Barkat (@llbarkat). She has one of the most gracious and welcoming personalities in the online space—so I'm delighted she's writte…  […]

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[…] article drew immediate criticism, to the effect that it was no “call to arms.” I did not take the criticism to heart. But […]

Sharon Love Cook
Someone left a review of my first mystery: A Nose for Hanky Panky, on Amazon, saying my book was loaded with profanity(!) This bothered me. I don’t deal in profanity, at least not on the written page. Sure I had a few “s**t “words and others sprinkled here and there, but no F-bombs or anything approaching “profanity.” I contacted Amazon to complain because I felt it was unfair. They more or less told me they couldn’t do anything as it was one reader’s opinion. I asked my writing friends: Was the reviewer living in our century? Had she ever watched… Read more »
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