Writing Anxieties: Criticisms, Many and Varied

I recently had an unfortunate fall out with a friend. Well, ex-friend now. I won’t go into too many details, but the blow up was sparked after this person having made a couple of comments that made it clear they did not like that I wrote erotica. In amongst the many things that were said (and there were many, many things said, on both sides), the idea came up that I don’t handle criticism well, and was defensive about the writing that I do because, deep down, I wasn’t sure that I really believed it was ok to be writing erotica.

It got me thinking about the different kinds of criticism that people involved in creative pursuits, if they take them seriously, have to deal with. And, of course, how I handle it.

Anyone involved in any artistic pursuit has to learn to deal with criticism. The moment you produce a work and put it out for public display, whether intended or not, it invites comment. What any artist wants, naturally, is praise. What often happens is often radio silence, the sense you’re shouting into an echo chamber, unsure that anyone has heard you or not. This you learn to deal with (I figure there are some people reading my work at least – keeping an eye on the website hit counts has a small mercy in knowing that I’m not totally unheard. But that’s another matter, for another post).

And sometimes, there is criticism.

For most artists, that moment that your audience makes a comment, isn’t where the critique begins. First you have to examine your own concerns about the work. The artistic response varies wildly between being so hypercritical that you can’t see anything of merit in what you’ve produced, as much fun as you had making it, to the lofty self-assurance that it is brilliant and you are Shakespeare reincarnate. Those of us who make any headway tend to fall somewhere in between, able to recognise that our work isn’t perfect, but can appreciate when we did something well. At this stage, a second, and third, and even fourth and fifth pair of eyes are what’s needed. Granted I don’t always make it to this stage before submissions, but I know it’s useful, so useful, because you may be blinded to certain flaws, and indeed, even the best bits, of what you’ve created. Assuming then that your work is accepted by an editor, or producer, or however your work is disseminated, you then face another round of critique. This I suspect can be the most ruthless, because the cutting and chopping and changing that is often required to either a) make your work the best the editor thinks it can be and/or b) fit the image of what the editor wants, can be long, detailed, and a helluva lot of work. Granted, I’ve not had a piece very thoroughly worked over – there were some changes to my piece for Filament, that I think altered the tone slightly without meaning to, but they were minor compared to tales of edits that involved halving chapters, removing chapters, or rewriting half a book. Oh the joys I have to look forward to…

The next stage, assuming you’ve survived this round of critiques, are the criticisms of review. I think in many ways these are much harder to deal with – after all, you’ve gone through all the above processes to create something, have looked it over with a critical eye to improvement…and still your audience thinks that this is the worst thing they’ve ever encountered. This…well. What can you do about it? The book is out there, the song is on radio, the film is rolling on screens across the country. It undeniably cuts, but unless you want to go down in the annals of publication history as one of those tantrum throwing artists (and there have been many), most of us tend to keep schtum in public and commiserate with our sympathetic friends in private. Friends at least still like you, even if the New York Times thinks your writing is on the nose.

This of course is to do with how to make a work better, how to take feedback, how to improve in our methods and technique. This kind of criticism, I think, most working artists develop pretty good mechanisms on how to handle in a fashion that is productive. We all have our melt downs (I can recall last year sending a rambling rant to a friend after a rejection for reasons that I thought were unjust, and in hindsight, I don’t think I was necessarily wrong, but the editor probably wasn’t either), and we make decisions on what to listen to and what to ignore.

But there are other kinds of criticisms, ones that aren’t to do with the skill and artistry of the work, but the nature of the work itself. And in relation to the work itself, is the sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicit, criticism of you as a person.

For genre writers (you name it, it has been derided), there is often an implied sense that what they are writing isn’t thoughtful or intelligent. Literary writers, on the other hand, get smacked with accusations of pretension. (Which proves no matter what you do someone is going to have words about it.) Erotica writers I think face the problem two-fold. If you’re not being judged for producing something that people deem to be inherently bad in the sense of quality (because writing sex scenes is just doomed from the outset – see the annual Bad Sex Awards and the yearly debate about ‘is it possible to actually write about sex well?’), its being deemed bad in terms of its morality (writing about sex is wrong because there is something a bit dubious about sex in general). The former gets paired with the idea that you’re probably lacking in talent or a just a little bit stupid (at least the criticism can come across this way), whilst the latter is very clear an implication that you’re probably not a very good person.

It’s one thing to be told that your work is inferior; it’s quite another to be told that you are a lesser person for what it is that you write.

Granted, this is not what my friend said. Her angle was more that there were better things to write about than sex, or more specifically, smut with the aim to turn people on, and was I truly happy to be doing this with my time? Really, truly? Thing is this, to me, is on the same level as the question ‘when are you going to write a real book?’ I spoke to one writer at Eroticon whose had this experience, and I know YA authors get it far too often. There is an implication in this, whether its giver intends it or nor – that you’re wasting your time and it should be turned to other, more worthy subjects.

And how does a writer deal with this? I’d love to know the answer.

It’s one of those things that you really should be able to turn around, look that person in the eye, and say, calmly and steadily, “Yes, this makes me happy. Yes, this where my talent lies. Yes, I can still be a good person and write about the darkness and the light. No actually, I don’t think writing about sex, of any stripe, be it hard-core BDSM, or the gentlest, sun-kissed love-making scene, makes me a bad person, because fiction is not a reflection of reality nor how I wish to live my life.”

Why can’t I always do that? I want to be able to. I feel, though, when it comes from people you know, people who you really do want to respect and like you, people whose good opinion really does matter…it’s hard. I don’t have the nerves of steel, the powerful, inner core of strength to be able to tell someone who I do, essentially, what they think doesn’t matter. Because if you care about them, and they you, it does. It is not fun to actively shut people out of your life, though sometimes a necessarily evil for your sanity and feelings, especially if they’ve been a good part of it up until that point. All I can think at this point it to toughen up, and learn to deal, because this isn’t the last time this is likely to happen. But I’d be exceedingly curious to hear how other people manage, and what other people think.

Funny thing is, were it a random stranger, or dare I say, internet troll, and they were to march up to me and give me their thoughts on what I do? Well, I can quite confidently say that they can sod off. 😉