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.

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