So you wrote a story. Poured your soul out in prose. Whereupon the Fates smiled upon you, and your story was accepted for publication. And then, after who knows how many years of writing, struggling, and wondering whether you really had what it took, the great day finally arrived, when the publication was at last released, and you became that incredible thing you'd always dreamed of becoming: a published author.
It really is an amazing feeling. One moment, you're on top of the world. At last, my story is published! I've made it!
The next, you're hit by the terrifying realization: My God. My little darling is out there all alone and naked, with no one to protect it.
That's when you realize what a terrible emotional gamble writing fiction for publication is. Your tender little story is going out there, utterly defenseless, into a big bad world full of big bad wolves—and worse, critics. People who you don't know and who don't know you will read your story. They will form opinions about it. And some of them might not like it.
In some respects I think writers had it easier, back in the glory days of dead tree publishing. Back then you might wait months or even years between the time you sold your first story and the time it finally came out in print, but this lag was a valuable buffer. You had time to bask in the glory of having finally broken into print, and then to turn around and write and sell more stories, before having to face that terrible moment when the magazine finally hit the racks and you were forced to realize: the jury is out. There's nothing more you can do for your story now but wait for the verdict to come in.
There was great consolation to be had in knowing that you had six more stories already sold and in the publication queue. The critics don't like your story in this month's Amazing? Big deal. Maybe they'll like the one in next month's Fantastic better.
The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. These days, writers are constantly playing with double-edged razor blades. Yes, the Internet means it's now possible to write a story today and have it published to a world-wide audience tomorrow.
But it also means that critics, both professional and amateur, can have their opinions about your work published world-wide with equal rapidity, and worse, you can learn what those opinions are in the blink of a Google search, or a quick peek at the Amazon listing. Doubly worse, critics are no longer strange and distant creatures, hidden behind bylines at magazines or newspapers; now they're people with blogs, and names of their own, and email addresses, and probably a bio on Wikipedia and critics of their own, if you're sufficiently motivated to start digging for dirt. The temptation to respond to what seems like an unfair review by leaping to the defense of your story; to level the guns, load with flaming shot, and return fire with a wildly unaimed broadside, can be almost irresistible...
In other respects, I think I had an unfair advantage over the other writers who were in my age group, in that I backed into writing fiction via music and theater. By the time I started getting fiction published and reviewed, I'd already had my work torn to little bloody shreds by theater critics. For sheer venomous bitchiness, there is nothing in the world of fantastic fiction that begins to compare to a major newspaper theater critic.
This experience also inured me. I soon grew to realize that the critic wasn't savaging me; he was just criticizing some music I'd written. Or maybe not even that; maybe of all the music I'd written for the show, he just didn't like the particular music the director chose to use in a particular scene. Or maybe the critic was grumpy that night because he'd had lousy service in a restaurant before he ever arrived at the theater. Or maybe he was just determined to hate everything about the show, because he'd had an affair with the lead actor years before, and then he'd been jilted by him, the bitch.
In those days, a wise friend gave me some good advice. When I had steam pouring out of my ears because of a particularly insulting review, he said, "Go ahead. Write him a letter. Begin it with, 'Dear Ignorant Flaming F**king Faggot,' if you like. Then seal it in an envelope, stick it in your desk, and don't look at it again for at least a week. If you still feel that strongly about it after you've let it sit for a week, go ahead and send the letter.
"But I'm betting you won't."
He was right. I never did.
Before you give in to the temptation to respond to a critic, then, ask yourself: What do I gain by doing this?
Will you change the critic's opinion of this story? Not likely. Will you convince the critic to print a retraction? Not a chance in Hell. Will you make the critic inclined to give your next publication a more even-handed review? Even less likely. Will you find yourself promoted to a place of prominence on the critic's personal Known Jerks & Twits list?
Back before I decided I had better things to do with my time, I used to write book reviews. Not everyone liked my reviews of their novels, and I got more than a few letters and emails from self-identified big name authors that essentially said, "You stupid punk! Don't you know who I am?"
Why, yes, as a matter of fact, I do. You're someone whose work I will ignore completely in the future. Keep sending me those free review copies, though. I get top dollar for them at Half-Price Books.
Hard as it may be to believe, a reviewer is doing you a favor whenever he or she takes notice of your work, even if that notice comes in the form a bad review. It's still free advertising, and it brings your work to the attention of readers who might not know of it otherwise. Readers are smart enough to realize that a review is only one person's opinion, and reviewers sometimes form opinions for utterly irrational reasons. This one doesn't like steampunk; that one will never like a story with elves. Heck, sometimes readers read reviews just because the reviewer is a known reliable contra-indicator: if reviewer "A" loves a movie, I know I'll hate it. I'm sure you can think of a few reviewers like that.
The point is, this is the risk we take every time we put our fiction out in public: we are laying ourselves open for criticism. If we are lucky, people will read our stories and feel moved enough to form opinions. Some of these opinionated people will then for personal or commercial reasons feel inclined to publish their opinions, and their opinions might contain words we don't take pleasure from hearing.
You cannot write for publication without taking this risk. It comes with the job; it's part of the territory. The way you silence those unpleasant words is not by arguing with the critic over his current opinion of your current publication; it's by writing something new that makes him begin to suspect there's more to your work than first meets the eye, and perhaps he should be paying closer attention to you in the future.
And that something new is probably not a letter that begins, "Dear Ignorant Flaming F**king Faggot..."
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