Thursday, February 12, 2015

Separation of words and self

The past several weeks have been rather, shall we say, challenging for me, which is why I haven't kept this blog up quite as regularly as I would have liked.  Two separate writing projects have demanded my time and concentration, as well as other aspects of real life.  Right now, however, I am facing the prospect of about a week tending a dog recuperating from surgery, so I'll probably have a lot of time at the desk and computer to catch up on some of the blogging.

One of the issues that's been brought home to me in some rather startling ways is this whole issue of writers wailing that their books are their babies.  They seem to use this claim as a justification for both outrage over negative book reviews and outright attacks (usually verbal rather than physical) on the reviewers. 

This is not a new phenomenon.  Writers have been dissing critics just about as long as there have been writers and critics.  My own experience goes back just around 30 years to my early days in Romance Writers of America and judging RWA contest entries.  In face-to-face critique groups and online groups, along with one-on-one evaluations, responses to criticism ranged from "You're right; I need to fix that" to "It's my book and I'll write it the way I want to!  Who are you to tell me how to write my book?"

After this more recent brouhaha over critical reviews which escalated to the point of reviewers receiving death threats, I wondered what is it that makes some writers react to criticism of their writing with such intensely personal outrage.  The reviewers don't know the writers; all they're doing is commenting on their reaction to the book.  And yet the writers take it so very personally.  Why?

I'm not sure why I happened to think of my old writing buddy EK last night, but I did, and I began to see a connection between her reaction to criticism 20 years ago and this current wave of battered egos.

EK was in her early 60s when I met her, a delightful, cheerful woman with an infectious laugh and a constant smile.  Nothing about her demeanor suggested she had been through some very, very hard times.  Her first husband had deserted her with two small children; she had at one point lived with the children in the basement of an abandoned church.  Her second husband was abusive, and in and out of jail for various not-so-petty crimes.  After two more children she divorced him, but he hounded her for years and years afterward.  He broke into her home, stole from her, made so much trouble that she was evicted from several apartments.  The problems with him only stopped when he beat her so badly -- because she didn't have any cash in her home for him to steal -- that she ended up in the hospital and he ended up in jail for a much longer stretch.

She had lived in or near poverty most of her life, unable to hold a job very long because of the issues in her personal life.  One child died of AIDS in the early days of the epidemic; another disappeared into the streets.  There had been other, serious problems, the kind none of us wants to have even one of but EK had several.

Two other writers and I had formed a critique group, and when EK asked to join we welcomed her.  At our first meeting she described her work-in-progress as a contemporary romance featuring a high school math teacher recovering from a bitter divorce and a firefighter who had just lost his young wife to cancer.  Given that this was the late 1980s, EK's characters were way ahead of their time in terms of the contemporary romance market.  The rest of us warned her about this, but she insisted this was the story she wanted to write, and these were the characters she wanted to write about.  Okay, fine.

The book began with a Prologue that provided almost all the backstory for both characters in a classic "Write Chapter 1, write Chapter 2, throw away Chapter 1" fashion.  EK politely accepted our suggestions that she weave backstory into the narrative, but continued to insist it was her story and she would tell it her way. 

At our next meeting, we critiqued her Chapter 1 (which was effectively her second chapter), which served to introduce the firefighter hero character. Though it was competently written for the most part, we three readers found some continuity and consistency flaws and a few other mistakes.  EK graciously and sometimes self-deprecatingly agreed with almost all of our assessments and said she would fix the errors.  My personal feeling was that she had a workable story in process, and if she continued to accept advice as well as she had, she would probably end up incorporating her prologue's info-dumpy contents into the story and ditching the Prologue to produce a viable book manuscript.

Our third meeting should have brought us to Chapter 2, but instead EK brought her revised Chapter 1.  She had reworked the sections where we had found problems, and she had made some other revisions and additions.  The new material revealed some other errors and weaknesses; she didn't argue with our comments and agreed these things needed to be fixed.  We specifically told her to let them go for the time being and bring us the next chapter.

She didn't.  She brought yet another revision of Chapter 1.  When we asked her why she hadn't brought the next chapter, she explained that she hadn't written it yet.  "I have to have this chapter absolutely perfect," she said, "before I go on.  This character is my hero, my hero, and to tell the truth I'm reluctant to share him even with the other main character in the story."

At the time, we all kind of laughed and teased her about falling in love with her own fictional creation, but as a few more meetings went by, she brought only the first few pages of Chapter 2 along with more revisions, more additions to Chapter 1.  It became clear that EK really had fallen in love with this fictional firefighter, and she wasn't about to share him.

For a variety of reasons that had nothing to do with EK and her book boyfriend, the critique group dissolved after about five months.  I stayed in contact with both EK and one of the other members for a long time afterward, long enough to learn that EK never did write any more on her book.  The other writer, who went on to be traditionally published, and I agreed that EK really wasn't writing for publication.  She was writing to create the kind of man and the kind of romance she had never had in real life. 

We further agreed that there was nothing wrong with this.  If EK had been pushed to finish her book, if she had found a publisher for it, she would have had to share her hero; and sharing him would have broken her heart.  She wasn't writing for readers, she was writing for herself. 

In at least one of the recent explosions of writer over-reaction to negative reviews, the writer had made it abundantly clear that she was writing the kind of story she loved.  As in EK's case, there's nothing wrong with that. 

What seems to be more and more apparent in each of these emotional outbursts in response to negative criticism of the writing is that the writers are equating that criticism to attacks upon themselves.  They claim, sometimes in explicit language, that their books are their babies and criticism of the book is therefore a personal affront. 

They claim that they don't mind low ratings (1- or 2-star ratings) or negative reviews, provided the review is constructive, is kind, is helpful.  Again, they want the review directed toward them, as the writers, not toward the readers for whom the review is intended.

Which all makes me wonder if in fact the writers were never writing for readers in the first place.  They were writing for themselves, with really no thought to the fact that other people would be reading, people who did not have the same passion for that particular book that the writer had.  Unable to separate themselves from their stories, the writers are unable to put themselves in the position of "mere" reader.

Very often there are other specific details about the writer's experience that raise some red caution flags. 

The writer who over-reacts to negative reviews often has a group of fellow writers for mutual support.  Most of them will have very little if any experience or knowledge of the writing/publishing business.  They are writing books based on personal experience or personal passion with the intent of sharing the writing as a direct extension of the self.  There is much less emphasis placed on how the resultant work will effect or impact or be received by the reader, and more emphasis placed on the personal expression of the experience or passion.  In other words, the writing is writer-centered rather than reader-centered.

The group is not, in fact, a critique group directing its attention to the writing, but a support group directing its effort toward the writer.  The writer is encouraged to write, but the writing itself is not critiqued.  Or if it is, the critique is more encouraging than critical.

Even after the writer has self-published the book, there is an entire community of writers who refuse to offer critical reviews because of their identification with the writer.  They admit they do not want to hurt the writer's feelings.  They refuse to leave a negative review or low rating because to do so would be to minimize the effort the writer put into the product.  They defend other writers, even when the writing is shown to be objectively sub-standard, and admit they fear retaliation if they even point out mistakes.  In some cases, these writers' works exhibit the same mistakes, suggesting they themselves are not qualified to provide the kind of writing-criticism the original writer needs if she wants to write for readers.

It's easy to make the leap from this to speculate that many of these hyper-sensitive writers have never been voracious readers.  They don't exhibit any kind of empathy with readers, but only with writers.  They seem unable to recognize the writing flaws that distinguish their writing from "good" writing, or at least writing that fits the standards generally accepted for successful popular fiction and non-fiction.  Even when they do admit, however reluctantly, that their writing mechanics may fall short, they offer a common set of excuses and/or justifications: They can't afford an editor, or the reader shouldn't complain about a free/inexpensive book, or the writer is a beginner and shouldn't be held to the same standard as professionals.  Again, the writer and her feelings always have priority over the quality of the product and the reader's expectations of it.

Anyone who disagrees with them is a bully, trying to kill their book and their writing career.  I'm not sure, at this point, that most of those writers ever really contemplated a writing career.  They have exhibited little to no professionalism in the production of their books that would indicate they've studied how to write and how to publish.  Instead, they have simply poured their "heart and soul" into words on electronic paper and uploaded them.  That's not a career any more than my buying a set of golf clubs would make me a professional golfer.

A common response to these meltdowns is that the writers need to develop thicker skins, and I've certainly expressed that feeling often enough myself.  After some of the most recent events, however, I'm beginning to think that's the wrong advice, simply because for these writers, growing a thicker skin is simply not possible.  Their books were really never intended to be shared with a wider audience than friends and family and supporters who would be encouraging and uncritical.  Their books really are their babies, part of themselves, created for themselves, even if the writers insist otherwise.  There's no indication that the writers did any kind of research to make sure they were producing a work that would be well-received by the reading public.  There are many more indications that they were simply writing for their own enjoyment.

And again, there's nothing wrong with this.  The problem arises when the writers forget -- and perhaps they never knew -- that when one writes for other people's enjoyment, one has to take their considerations and expectations first, not last.

Those of us who are avid readers long before we are compulsive writers know almost viscerally that books are not their writers.  Books are a creative product put into a public marketplace for consumption, discussion, comparison, and review, quite separate from their creators.  The conversations we readers have with each other about those books that fall short of our expectations as readers are not about the writers -- unless and until the writer inserts herself confrontationally into that conversation.