Negative reviews and pickled beets: choosing our responses.
I am not the argumentative sort (anymore). An ex of mine found this out when he accused me of “making him mad”. My reply was irritating (I know): “I didn’t ‘make you mad’, you chose to feel mad.” But it brings me to thoughts on responses to harsh or negative reviews.
While it would be nice to hand-pick the people we want to read our stories, it’s not like they are wandering around a petting zoo, waiting for us to feed them our words. The vastness of the internet virtually guarantees that someday, somewhere, somebody will find your book, read it, and hate it.
When I was a new writer (and really, I still am), I took every bad review to heart. I wanted to see what I had done wrong. What could I change to make this person--and every person-- love my words? Of course, the answer is: not a thing. You can’t “make” somebody like you, just like you can’t “make” somebody mad. They reacted to your words and had a negative experience. So too, with harsh reviews, we, as authors can choose our reactions.
The flame wars that start when an author gets a particularly caustic review are always like Technicolor train wrecks to me. The author (or a well-meaning fan) chooses to take offense and responds with either a “logical” argument as to why that reviewer is “wrong”, or they flat out insult the reviewer. At this point (and it’s already pretty much too late for the author to redeem themselves if they were personally involved—although I have seen some graciously apologize and manage to work it out), the reviewer can lob another bomb by choosing to feel insulted, or let it go. I think, nine times out of ten, there will be another reply, and thus the battle begins with a see-saw effect of hurling insults at one another. I have to admit, it’s sort of a therapeutic schadenfreude for me (yeah, I’m sick like that), but it rarely ends well for the author.
Similarly, I’ve seen discussion threads where someone says something that seems absolutely benign, but someone else will find something that they feel is offensive and a battle ensues.
All of this comes down to choice. Readers can choose to read a book or not read a book. They can choose to love it or take issue with it. They can choose to review or not review. Writers can choose what to put into that book, to read or ignore reviews, etc… We can’t truly influence other people. We can’t “make somebody mad” or “make them happy”. All we can do is try to choose our words, our tone, and our emotional responses carefully.
People all have different life experiences—they eat different foods at different times of day, had different parents, come from different economic, social, and political environments, etc… no one can feel the same things that someone else feels in response to the same stimuli—be it words, images, flavors, ideas… For example: I hate pickled beets. I don’t know why I don’t like them, but that doesn’t invalidate my experience of them any more than it validates the experience of someone who loves them. No matter what anybody says about the virtues of pickled beets, I will never like the taste.
So the next time you write something-- be it a story, discussion post, blog-ramble, or whatever, and somebody chooses to take issue, remember: it’s your choice to feel insulted/slighted/angry, and it’s your choice to decide how (or whether) to respond. To argue or not to argue. It’s your choice to let an initial emotional discomfort in response to someone else’s opinion raise your hand or ruin your day. Personally, there are not enough hours in my day to waste by feeling angry or crafting a biting response to a negative review. I’d rather be working on my next book. ☠