Friday, December 09, 2011

Ignoring the H8Rs. Tess Gerritsen

Tess Gerritsen left a successful practice as an internist to raise her children and concentrate on her writing. She gained nationwide acclaim for her first novel of medical suspense, the New York Times bestseller Harvest. She is also the author of the bestsellers Life Support, Bloodstream, Gravity, and The Surgeon. Tess lives with her family in Maine. (PHOTO CREDIT: Paul D'Innocenzo)

Ignoring the H8Rs

by Tess Gerritsen

Recently I came across the premise for a new reality TV show called "H8R," which, for those of us who are text-message neophytes, translates as: "Hater." Here's the description:

On this reality show, celebrities go head-to-head with regular people who don’t like them. They try to win their adversaries over and, in the process, reveal person behind the famous name. Mario Lopez hosts the program which includes two celebrities in each episode.

The haters are not told about the show’s actual premise when they’re recruited. Producers tell them a different type of documentary or show is being shot but extensive background checks are done to ensure the haters are not also stalkers. In some cases, the celebrities nominate their haters, who they know from the Internet or Twitter.

For people who aren't celebrities, it may come as a surprise that celebrities can, in fact, feel personally wounded by cruel remarks made by complete strangers. When Gwyneth Paltrow started amassing hordes of such haters, I wondered how she felt about it. I also wondered why anyone would bother hating a woman just because she's a blonde, beautiful, talented gal who likes to share lifestyle tips. It's the same thing I wondered about people who hate Martha Stewart with such gusto, investing a great deal of emotional energy attacking a woman they don't personally know. When I thumb through her LIVING magazine to gawk at her impossibly elaborate craft projects, I don't feel jealousy or disdain. What I feel is resignation, because I know I'd probably end up hot-glueing my own head to the ceiling fan. I'll never be as capable as Martha Stewart, but that's okay with me.

You don't have to read the National Enquirer to know that the most-envied celebrities are often the public's favorite targets of vilification. It's the people we want to be or look like, the people who have what we want to have, that catch the brunt of public hatred. Celebrities aren't really human, so how could they possibly have human feelings? They're rich, they're beautiful, they're successful, so why should they care if complete strangers spew hateful things about them?

Some people think it's fun and amusing and harmless to hate the Marthas and Gwyneths and Brangelinas, and to express that hatred online so the world can share our bile. But celebrity is only a matter of degree. Just about anyone can be considered a public person these days. Restaurant chefs. Athletes. Policemen.

And writers.

A few weeks ago, novelist JA Konrath posted a blog entry called "Not Caring," about how important it is for writers to develop thick skins.

One of the greatest skills you can acquire as an author is a thick skin.

Once you unleash a story onto the world, it no longer belongs to you. When it was in your head, and on your computer during the writing/rewriting process, it was a personal, private thing. But the moment your words go out into the world, they are subject to the opinion of strangers. What was once personal is now public.

Do yourself a huge favor, and don't listen to the public.

This goes for more than your literary endeavors. If you blog, or speak in public, or tweet on Twitter, you are a Public Figure.

That means some people aren't going to like you.

And you shouldn't care.

You hear this very wise advice from non-writers as well. That we writers shouldn't give a damn about reviews. That writers should stop whining and pull on their "big-girl panties." That being published means you have no right to be sensitive to whatever anyone, anywhere, says about you. But that advice isn't always easy to take, and I know many authors who are still personally wounded by a bad review or snarky comments on Amazon. One very talented debut novelist, a man who's hitting bestseller lists around the world, told me that the hardest thing about being published was learning to take the blows. He knew he was thin-skinned, and he tried to prepare himself for public criticism, yet he was taken aback by how much it hurt.

"Crybaby!" I can hear the public sneering. "Why don't you man up and grow a pair?"

On a readers' forum, I came across comments by two teachers who smugly observed that, unlike crybaby writers, when teachers get performance reviews, they're mature enough to deal with the negative ones. They said that writers are a privileged and lucky group (whose average income, by the way, is less than $10,000) so no one should sympathize with them. Writers should stop whining and be as tough as everyone else whose work gets reviewed by superiors. For crying out loud, writers should learn to be as tough as teachers.

Then, a few months later, a tragic thing happened. In a new policy introduced by the Los Angeles Times, L.A. public school teachers' performance ratings were published in the newspaper. A highly dedicated teacher, despondent over his merely average rating, committed suicide.

I'm wondering if it suddenly became clear to those teachers that public criticism, public exposure, feels like a different thing entirely than does a private performance review. When your boss tells you you need to shape up, that can sting. But when that performance review is online and in the newspapers for your neighbors and colleagues to see and talk about, that's a level of embarrassment that not everyone can deal with.

Not surprisingly, many teachers were upset about the dead teacher's public shaming and suicide. Just as they're upset when they're called lousy teachers by students on Facebook.

Yet that's what writers routinely put up with. It comes with the job -- a job that pays the average writer about as much as a part-time dishwasher -- and we have to learn to deal with it.

But it's not easy.  First published at Murderati


Gina Holmes said...

This hit close to home. I thought I had a tough skin, and I think I do to , but I was taken back by the degree of meanness by some reviewers. When you're a person who by nature considers other's feelings before opening your mouth, it's stunning to learn that others will say on the web what they would never dream of to your face. I think before writing, it would be a good idea to word reviews or comments how you would if the person were looking right at you. Because they most likely will be face to face with your words.

One reviewer's title for my debut was "yuck, just yuck". It didn't hurt because I know the book is good but it's shocking in a way. If I had asked that person personally, did you like it? They would probably say, "No, it wasn't really my cup of tea." I doubt they'd ever have the guts to say it made them want to puke.

I think it's certain reviewers who need to grow a pair. Don't do online what you would never do in person. I try to remember that the people who are hardest to love probably need it the most. You can be honest, give a one star review without attacking a writer personally.

I can relate to the teachers who thought writers needed to grow up. I thought writers took reviews too personally until I got a taste of attacks.

The more popular you become, the more you draw the haters. Unfortunately it seems to be a right of passage.

If you're not having crap slung at you, chances are you're not reaching all that big of audience. But I guess that's why we get the big bucks, or rather big change. :-)

Great post Tess, and Kelly, you picked a good one.

Tammy Snyder said...

I've not had a bad review yet but have prepared for it. I've seen famous writers, like Nora Roberts, with nasty comments so I think that if they can get them, anyone can. It doesn't seem to change the minds of their true fans and they still continue to bring in the newbies so, I'll not worry. A few ugly comments come with the job. Brace thyself. God Bless.

Nicole said...

I could sew ancient battle armor to my skin and it wouldn't make it "thicker". My exposure is minimal so I haven't had to take the public "hits". And it'll hurt if I do. No avoiding it.

However, I have had to post some not-so-good reviews on my blog and Amazon as per requests by those providing the books for review. It's not a fun thing, and I try to do it thoughtfully and totally without malice, stressing I'm not the target audience and others will no doubt enjoy the book.

Some people are able to wear thick skin. Not me. Won't happen much as sometimes I wish I could.

Gina Holmes said...

Nicole, unpositive reviews are fine. From what I've read, yours aren't ever mean. Honest is great. Mean is just not cool.

Rosslyn Elliott said...

Tess, thanks for the thoughtful post.

Dealing with highly negative lay reviews may come with the job, as you say, but that is a very recent phenomenon. It did not come with the job ten or twenty years ago. Sure, writers have always had to deal with negative professional reviews, but for the most part, negative pro reviews remain just that--professional, with some minimum standard of obejctivity. While there are many excellent lay reviewers out there, there are also bad ones. And, most importantly, many lay reviewers go by different criteria. There's no requirement to be objective. It can be pure opinion. So for the first time, writers have to deal with scores or even hundreds of opinions on their work, informed and uninformed, posted in public forums.

Most of the time, lay reviews are a blessing, as we get to interact with our readers and learn from their comments, even constructive criticism. Occasionally, they are not a blessing. ;-) My point is that before social media, lots of 'h8ers' would not bother to pick up a pen and write directly to the author to express their dislike or scorn for her work. So authors are getting a LOT more negative feedback than ever before.

I think it's important to acknowledge when we go through a seismic change in the nature of our job as writers, because that's the only way to understand why the type of person who chooses to be a writer might change. I'll be watching to see whether some of our talented peers start to quit because they get tired of dealing with the ugliness. Writing is already a very challenging, low-paid profession that involves lots of criticism as our work goes through the editorial process--this may push some over the edge. And while some may put on their bravado and say 'good riddance! those quitters were the weak ones,' I don't agree. Some wonderful writers are extremely sensitive and won't be able to take it. I will be sad to lose their work.

Jan Drexler said...

I'm not published yet, but have been trying to prepare myself for the negative reviews since I started writing - but it's like trying to prepare to go through labor with your first baby. Others can tell you their experiences, but your experience will be different. All you can do is expect it to be hard, and deal with it.

Like Gina Holmes said, it's a rite of passage.

Ane Mulligan said...

If I had to post a not-so-good review, I try to sandwich it between some positive remarks. But this is something all writers have to get used to, since reading is so subjective. Gina will recommend a book to me that I yawned after the first paragraph, yet she loves it. And vice versa. We rarely agree on what we love in books. Yet ... I fully understand it isn't the writing, it's what rings my literary chimes isn't what rings hers.

We have to try to take it with the old saying, "All publicity is good." Just as Jim Rubart. :o)

Mary DeMuth said...

Uncanny timing of this post. I read a mean-spirited review today and it sidelined me. I'm trying so hard to let it go.

Ane Mulligan said...

Mary, I firmly believe those come from ... you-know-who, the one who wants to stop the writer from ever writing again. Remembering the source helps when those type are posted.

Koala Bear Writer said...

As a reviewer, I try to be honest and yet nice - I'm aware that some authors might be checking my reviews and I don't want to hurt them. At the same time, I have a responsibility to my readers to give them my honest opinion about the book.

As a writer, I know that I don't deal well with criticism and that's something I'll probably struggle with when/if I ever publish a book. No book will ever please everyone. Someone made a comment that even if an author sells a million copies, that's only 1 in 30 people (in the States, I think) who've bought the book; so in a room full of 30 people, one person liked the book. That puts a bit of perspective on it.

Esi Edugyan was recently interviewed on CBC about her Giller-prize winning novel Half-Blood Blues. Her interviewer was surprised when she admitted she doesn't read the reviews; her husband looks at them for her. I've heard of other writers doing that. Maybe that's like burying your head in the sand, but I think I see some wisdom in that - in writing what God calls us to write, or what's on our heart to write, and not letting people's changing opinions affect us.

Jim Rubart said...

Yes, Ane, while I do believe in the adage, "Love me, hate me, just don't ignore me", the hateful reviews can sting.

And there is a difference between people who don't like a book and those who are vengeful. With those individuals I try to remember people treat others the way they feel about themselves.

Ane Mulligan said...

True, Jim. I guess what I'm getting at is the ones who are vengeful aren't with the time of day or the energy to hurt over. They are true attacks from you-know-where. I'm sure I'll get my share in time. And I hope I can still be as thick-skinned about them. ;)

allison pittman said...

When my novel For Time and Eternity spent its time as a free Kindle download, I got dozens (OK, I think it was 7 last time I checked) horrible reviews. One simply calls it the worst book he/she has ever read. It was a harrowing, discouraging couple of weeks. But, God is so faithful. For every bad review, I received 2-3 personal emails of people who loved the book. As Christian writers, we have to remember that we are not working to please man, but to bring glory to God. Not everyone will embrace your obedience.

Francine Morrow Keehnel said...

Thanks for your insightful Blog post, Tess. I enjoyed it very much.

I loved reading everyone's responses and wanted to share a few insights from Proverbs 15 about dealing with painful criticism and heartless words. Christians inevitably hurt one another at times, but nasty reviews by H8Rs will not be coming from genuine fellow believers. Here's why:

The following verses are from Proverbs 15, NASB

1 A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. 2 The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable, but the mouth of fools spouts folly. 3 The eyes of the LORD are in every place, watching the evil and the good. 4 A soothing tongue is a tree of life, but perversion in it crushes the spirit. 21 Folly is joy to him who lacks sense, but a man of understanding walks straight. 28 The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things.

A number of years ago I came under attack by one of the members of a cult from which I had studied my way out. I was fully committed to follow Jesus only, no matter what. Some spirit-crushing words effectively stopped me for a period of about 12 months from speaking or writing what God had called me to do. Looking back I feel my inability to grasp the spiritual principles found in Proverbs 15 (above) and Ephesians 6 (below) was responsible for my retreat, when none had been ordered by the Lord. Thankfully, God is patient and has brought me full circle, teaching me to let Him go to battle on my behalf while I abide in Christ and, whether speaking or writing, do all for His glory.

It is my fervent desire that we as Christian writers will "be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. That we will put on the full armor of God, so that we will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm... taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one... With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints, and pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, [and in all that I write] to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador... that in proclaiming it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak. (Words in quotation marks above are from Ephesians 6:10-13, 16, 18-20 NASB)

Dan Walsh said...

A few days late chiming in, but wanted to thank you, Tess for a great post. For the most part, the reviews of my books have been very positive. Especially for my latest novel. But then, it's a Christmas book with a nice-hanky ending.

But a few Scrooges managed to find serious flaws with it, citing things they hated that happened to be the very things others especially loved about the book.

I wanted to dwell on the ten 5-star reviews that came in around the same day. I really did. But some, sad, sick thing inside me kept going back to the Scrooge post, trying to figure out if there was any way I could have made this person happy.

Then I realized, any time spent on this was a waste because it's like you said: "Some people aren't going to like you." That's just the reality of it.

Thankfully, it's some, not all.