The beauty of a Creative Writing workshop is that it is intended to function as a safe, constructive space to honestly assess the areas for improvement in a piece of fiction. This is the intention. There’s also a huge risk with workshops, which is that sometimes people come to class not giving a single shit, or giving one too many shits, and then the idea of “constructive” crits go out the window as everything devolves into a cacophony of victimized terror.
One of the things that I hated was when writers brought in shrunken-down portions of their novels-in-progress. Not chapters from novels — if that was the case, students were instructed to also compose a synopsis that explained the context of the chapter so we could critique it through that lens. No, what I really hated was when students felt compelled to bring in their novel, but because it clocked in at 40 pages instead of the maximum 20, they tore out sections and basically presented a heavily abridged version of the text. This was problematic because, nine times out of ten, the writer did not process any critiques the class shared. Why would they? The writer could sit and think, “You just don’t understand what I was intending. You just don’t understand the larger piece.” That line of thinking basically translates into an hour of wasted time for everyone involved — and I’m not a fan of wasting time.
Not only that, but in most of the workshops I attended, the writer of the piece being workshopped was not allowed to speak — like, at all. And that was great. Because it allowed the conversation to exist around him or her, and it allowed the author to blend into the background as the story was naturally critiqued without any interruption. When an author interrupts a critique, that’s when things get messy. And all of this, in essence, is what happened in this recent Goodreads exchange.
When a reviewer offered her honest evaluation of a novel — rating it one star because of the author’s “unnecessarily wordy and pretentious” writing style — the author committed a grand faux pas by replying to her — and then continuing to reply to her, berating her, insulting her intelligence as a human being (“Do you have empathy? Do you know what it’s like to make something for a living? Are you human?”). His justification for his comments reminded me almost exactly of the writers from my workshops who felt like the class simply didn’t understand the larger intent of the text, or even the author’s purpose in writing. Intents and purposes are noble considerations, sure, especially because the author in question believes that he is “trying to warn people what’s going on in this world so that they can protect themselves and help others.” However, choosing to freak out over negative feedback in such a defensive way — hell, even replying to it in the first place — is hugely problematic because it ignores the basic beauty of putting your work out into the world.
Writing is about discovery on a personal and communal level. Yes. That sounds artsy. But it’s true: the things that strike me as fascinating or horrific or engaging might be completely outside the realm of experience or interest of another person, and that’s completely fine. This means that we might not enjoy the same things that other people enjoy. And oh my god, that’s wonderful, because it provides an honest opportunity to learn what stimulates the interest of other people.
This also has a lot to do with the foundation of a successful discussion about writing: personal feelings have to be discarded because, at the end of the day, the only thing that truly matters is your work. Not your intent, or how much you researched the topic, or even how many hours you put into it (although those are all worthwhile) — the thing that people will see is the writing and story, and if something is causing people to lose interest or miss something you have perceived as a necessary part of the piece, it is vital to learn that through the perspectives of others.
One of my professors is fond of saying to writers, “You don’t matter.” And it’s true. The words matter, and for this reviewer, the words the author presented weren’t working for her. This is valid. Since this is a published work and not a workshop environment, though, the author should not have defended himself, as he justifies later in his comment train; instead, he should have continued working, continued getting feedback, and continued developing as an artist. Really. I understand the desire to justify your actions or defend your work, I do. But in an open review forum like Goodreads, wherein the success of its reviews rely on honest and fully formed opinions, the line of thinking is similar to the depths of a workshop: process the good and the bad and move on.
Could the reviewer have phrased her initial comment in more constructive terms? Absolutely (and she even offers to provide a more in-depth analysis of the book’s shortcomings). But that doesn’t change the issues with this author’s response, or its biggest lesson to writers: Bad reviews will happen, and you should never, ever, not ever take them personally.
The thing that crystalized my issue with his replies was when he quotes David Lynch by stating:
If you have a golfball-sized consciousness, when you read a book, you’ll have a golfball-sized understanding; when you look out a window, a golfball-sized awareness, when you wake up in the morning, a golfball-sized wakefulness; and as you go about your day, a golfball-sized inner happiness. But if you can expand that consciousness, make it grow, then when you read about that book, you’ll have more understanding; when you look out, more awareness; when you wake up, more wakefulness; as you go about your day, more inner happiness.
The irony of this statement: the author himself holds a golfball-sized perspective on his work, and instead of allowing himself to consider the perspective the reviewer offered, he fought to maintain an iron hold on his own angry understanding.