Today I was cruising the Fark website and generally causing trouble on the Interwebs, when I came across an article about an author who went on a rampage responding to negative reviews of her book on Amazon. Apparently she posted almost 400 comments responding to the negative reviews, and even threatened to go to the FBI with the comments of negative responders. It is probably safe to say that this woman has a bit of difficulty accepting criticism.
As ludicrous as her response was, I wonder how many authors aren’t tempted to do the same thing. After all, when you put a creative work out for public view, it’s a bit like having a child. You’re emotionally bonded to the work, and have some level of personal investment in it. Having someone tell you that your work sucks is a bit like having someone tell you your kid is ugly. (I don’t have kids, but I imagine this would not provoke a happy response). No matter how well you take criticism, it’s hard not to take such things personally, even though your rational mind tells you it’s not really about you.
Criticism of creative work is a funny thing. While criticism can be helpful to someone trying to hone their skills, it is a mostly subjective phenomena and should be taken with a grain of salt. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked up books, even ones with good reviews, and put them down, bored to death after 2 pages. One’s point of reference is crucial for context, especially with literature—someone with an M.F.A. in creative writing is likely to look at a work of science fiction (for instance) with a different type of critical eye than someone who enjoys reading mass market science fiction. But for some, reviews may be a determining factor in why they choose to buy a book or not.
For the author, more is at stake than just sales. Regardless of how little something you write reflects your real life, there is still some piece of you in creating it—there are your imaginative ideas, if nothing else. It is often less personal than people think, unless the author specifically states that the writing is autobiographical. People will interpret your fiction writing in terms of two things—what they know (or think they know) about you, and their own life and issues. Things that resonate with our own life situation or the things we contemplate are going to be more appealing to us.
With regard to autobiography, I can use myself as an example. I had a story published to Writing Raw in September. A lot of people read that story, and said they couldn’t believe I wrote it. As one friend said, “I had no idea you were such a kinky little girl.” The fact of the matter is that no one actually KNOWS if I’m a kinky little girl. They just assume that if I can imagine such things, they must also be part of my interests. If you think about it, this is absurd. You might think about something because of another story you’ve read, or something you’ve seen in the news, and it may get fictionally interpreted. That said, there must be some part of you in the story for it to be authentic, even if it’s not autobiographical in the strictest sense.
Once the story was published, I realized that one of the first things I did was attempt to distance myself from it. There were two reasons for this—one just had to do with my audience. When I posted the story link to Facebook, I felt I had to be respectful of the fact that some of my friends have rather conservative viewpoints—on Facebook, I’m friends with everyone from Satanists to nuns. I didn’t think the more religious folk would have appreciated being confronted with that story without some warning. But there is another reason, which is that I like to keep people guessing. I have spent my life keeping people guessing. I hate labels—don’t tell me I’m this or that sort of person. I like to reinvent myself on a daily basis. I don’t like to be limited by any kind of societal role—if I want to do something badly enough, I’ll do it. So, I tend to leave people scratching their heads, because I do things that don’t fit in with the image they have of me. Making a foray into writing and making my work public therefore becomes extra dangerous. People look at what I’ve imagined, and imagine that they can definitively label me based on what I write. But I don’t want to be pigeon-holed as any specific kind of writer—sometimes I write thoughtful, academic things, other times I write erotica, other times horror or science fiction—and sometimes I write stuff that’s just plain stupid. But I don’t want to be forced to choose from those things, and I don’t want to shy away from ideas just because they’re controversial in some fashion.
It may come down to persona. Whatever image you want people to have of you is what you’re protecting when you get defensive about your public creative work. And like any image, it’s all bunk. You're protecting something as fictional as the stuff your writing. No one has any idea what the “truth” is, they only know what they can relate to in your work. If others don’t see your work the way you do, it really doesn’t matter much in the final analysis. The ones that do matter are the ones who take something useful away from it. Everyone else—you can’t please everyone. Don’t try.