“All worthy work is open to interpretations the author did not intend. Art isn’t your pet — it’s your kid. It grows up and talks back to you.” – Joss Whedon
When you release a written fictional work into the pubic marketplace, either on your own or through a publishing partner, it is like sending a helium balloon up into the air. It is floating off across the sky and how it will be seen is no longer under your control. Ever. Forever. Nor are reactions to you personally, as the author and therefore as a public figure of a sort, by people who may have no real knowledge of you and might not have even read your work, only heard of it.
It is very hard for authors to learn to sit still and not rush to try to defend their balloons — or themselves for launching them — when they feel someone is taking potshots at a work or misunderstanding it completely. No matter how much you may want to defend your work, however, you cannot. It will never have the effect that you want it to have. Because you are the one who launched the balloon, what you think of the balloon means nothing in the wider world in which it floats. And your rush to defend the balloon – even to those who agree with you about it – will be seen at best as a sort of whining, quaint idiocy and at worst as you being a raging jerkwad whose work they no longer have any interest in trying. Even if you have a cheerleading group of fans who are encouraging you to take action and give the critic what for, they are wrong. It will not work and it will drive other potential readers away. It does not matter if you are a bestselling balloon launcher, an award winning balloon launcher or a new balloon launcher. Snarl that people don’t have the right to make comments about your balloon and yourself as author of it and you’re toast. Because the reality is that they do have that right. Always. Forever. And just because you decided to launch a balloon does not give you any say in how they use it and talk about you with it. You released the balloon – it’s theirs now.
I was reminded of this back a few months ago, when the Clark Award nominations came out. It is tradition when award nominations are announced for there to be tirades against the nominees, along with suggestions as to who else would have been much better as a nominee. These tirades serve several useful purposes. They get people to be aware of the nominees, curious about them and talking about them – which is one of the main purpose of the awards themselves – and they get people to be aware of, be curious about and talk about suggested alternatives. And often they start other discussions that bring up other interesting works. For the Clark Awards, we got a goodie – a rant from noted author Christopher Priest, to whom the word “pithy” is certainly apt. His tirade created a side discussion started by author Cathrynne Valente, not about Priest’s views, but about the resistance women get on the Internet and elsewhere for making critical views like Priest’s or even mild observations, resistance and reaction that is framed entirely or almost entirely on them being women and ranges from violent threats to unconscious slams based on the feminine aspect. In the course of that issue, Valente mentioned a female blogger who is known for courting controversy who had jumped on Scott Bakker’s fantasy novels and on Bakker for being a sexist while not really having read his books. Valente did not agree with the blogger’s rants, but was looking at the framing of the reactions to her doing them. And this is how I learned that Scott Bakker had apparently been engaged in a war of words with this woman over his work.
Which surprised me. Bakker, who is a smart cookie and whose stories are actually I’d say subversively feminist, is obsessed with neurolinguistics and related issues. So you would think he’d understand the concept that the author cannot also effectively be the defender and cannot avert any “toxicity” from one person being critical, only compound it by trying to take on a role that the author cannot play. Perhaps he is going on the notion that it’s at least attention and attention is good, controversy sells, etc., but given that there is now a substantial chunk of people who now think Bakker is horrible and won’t touch his stuff, the trade off doesn’t seem very effective.
I was reminded of this again recently when I heard that a gang of bullies from Goodreads is now attacking reviewers they don’t like and think are too mean and critical on Goodreads in a separate site, identifying their victims and giving out their personal info. Every author I’ve heard tell of regarding this idea is appalled by it. While passionate arguing over works is all to the good, having vigilantes viciously attack others who disagree with them in the authors’ names is a disaster for the authors. (Plus, as the authors note, it’s just plain nasty.) It’s again a claim that others don’t have the right to make opinions, unfounded or otherwise, which is never going to sell a work or effectively defend it.
So how do authors deal with negative criticism if they can’t defend their balloon? They accept it. If the criticism is about the writing or the story and the criticism is not directly addressed to the author (i.e. they are not physically or electronically approached,) the simplest approach is to ignore it. Let it stand. It is your job as an author to send out a set of words into the world. It is not your job as author to critique the words that others say about your words. If you are directly approached with negative criticism of your writing or story, the response then is to say that you’re sorry that they didn’t like it, and hope that if they try something else of yours in the future, that they will like it better.
In such situations, gentle humor in you, the author, accepting, even celebrating, critical reactions as part of the joy of literature and the learning experience of being a writer may also help. When directly approached for his reaction to Priest’s scathing, brief commentary on his Clark Award nominated novel, author Charles Stross made T-shirts celebrating that Priest had called him an “Internet puppy.” Scott Lynch wrote about his bad reviews with humor and gratitude. John Scalzi celebrated his 1-star negative reviews for his new, bestselling novel Redshirts.
When the criticism is about non-writing issues like sexism and racism, the situation gets more complicated – and usually more personal. Reactions such as these are not just negative; they denote pain. There is a much stronger desire to defend the balloon, to defend one’s person and to deny another person’s right to have experienced pain on the grounds that the person is wrong to have that reaction to the work, is just trying to create controversy, etc. If that criticism is not directly given to the author, however, the best response is again to ignore it, to let it stand unacknowledged by you and not try to effect it or deny it with author commentary. It is an issue that every reader and potential reader decides for themselves and you won’t change that. Others may argue it for you – and hopefully will not do so as bullies or stalkers, but for you, the balloon has flown. You can widely discuss in interviews, essays and elsewhere not negative reactions to your work, but what you were trying to do in the story and positive reactions to it. Talking about your work from an author’s perspective usually is more likely to interest potential readers than arguing with a stranger about what sort of person you are.
If you are approached directly or asked about criticisms of your work based on issues such as sexism, the response is similar to that for writing criticisms: that you are sorry the person had that reaction, that this was not at all your intent in the work (because you didn’t want to cause people pain that way,) that you will think carefully about what the person said (because it’s usually a good idea to consider that reaction outside your own experience,) and that you hope that if the person decides to try any of your other works in the future, that he or she will feel that they are better. That’s about all you can do, and it may in no way change the critiquer’s mind or what that person says about you. It does, however, acknowledge that you heard what was said and that you accept your balloon is in the sky and is going to be seen in different, perhaps uncomfortable ways.
There are authors who may object to this whole idea, who like being magnets of controversy, who delight in vigorously defending their creations, who assert they are gods of brilliance or at least being unfairly picked on. After all, many vaunted literary figures in history have been lauded for the wit of their literary feuds and withering putdowns of critics. Such an approach, however, (besides being from a dated time,) does not remove criticism, nor weaken it. The balloon has flown and all who encounter it, or even hear of it in the sky, will judge it. Any argument you make, you make in your creative work, and that’s all you get. Beyond that, you’re simply preaching to the choir of those who already think you’re right and your work is golden, and snarling at those unsure, uncaring or upset. That’s your right to act that way. But you still are not actually defending your balloon. You don’t have that power. You’re the author. You gave it to the world.