Alternative title: Why writers need to have a thick skin and common sense.
“Let’s see YOU do better!” is one of the most common cries among fans of a work, actor, athlete, whatever when the object of their adulation is receiving criticism. The implication is that if you don’t have the same experience as the person in that field, you really have very little room to be criticizing a bad job in that area, especially since that person is doing something that you are incapable of.
To a certain extent, I can see where people who make this argument are coming from. For instance, I play ice hockey, and while I expect professional ice hockey players to do a better job of their game since they’re getting paid for it, I also know that there’s a lot of things that go on behind the scenes of a game that won’t necessarily show up on camera, especially in the case of injuries. So while I’ll call out a hockey player on a bad game, I don’t make the leap to saying that he’s a flop without a lot of evidence.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t recognize bad hockey playing when I see it. Most people can.
The same thing applies to writing and storytelling- I think especially to writing and storytelling, especially since the “Let’s see you do better argument!” tends to get thrown around a LOT in writing circles. Just one priceless example- Stephen King got it thrown at him by fans of Stephenie Meyer for his comments here. The assumption there appears to be that someone who is interested in books shouldn’t throw stones at a book unless he or she can write one.
Here’s the problem: someone who’s not an author or aspiring writer can still recognize the difference between a good story and a bad one.
I was inspired to write this post after some tweets by Laurell K. Hamilton, whom I follow on Twitter mainly for the amusement. I wasn’t disappointed this time around, as she actually claimed that the people who were giving her negative reviews were jealous wannabe writers. Really. (She also claims that those who don’t like her work are all sexually frustrated, but that’s a topic for another time… a better write-up of her Twitter antics is here.)
This dismissal of negative feedback is ridiculous for a couple reasons. One, as said above, you don’t need to be a writer to distinguish good writing from bad writing. My mother, who has no literary aspirations whatsoever, was in fits of laughter when I read her some excerpts of LKH’s work. This is the same woman who introduced me to Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Alexander McCall Smith. She can identify a good writer when she sees their work. My sister, who is set to graduate from culinary school this year and is a damn spectacular cook, is a very good judge of what makes for good literature and what doesn’t (incidentally, she wrote this piece for the blog earlier). They don’t need to be aspiring writers to identify something as poorly written. When you write anything at all, you’re hoping to reach out to people who aren’t writers, which is the majority of the population. It’s a given that not everything you write will be approved by them, and dismissing those who don’t like what you do as jealous smacks of insecurity. By decrying everyone who’s negatively reviewed her as jealous, Laurell K. Hamilton is trying to invalidate their points about her poor writing, and claim that because they’re aspiring writers, they have an axe to grind by decrying her work.
This leads me to the second point, which is that her claim is utterly bogus. Most aspiring writers are far too busy trying to land an agent or pitch their work to actually launch a campaign to decry someone who is a very established author in her field. In fact, many of the negative reviews Hamilton is decrying all describe themselves as former fans who are wondering what happened to a series they enjoyed. Jealousy and disappointment are not the same thing, and it’s fairly obvious from what I’ve seen that most of her fans are disappointed. They don’t want to supplant her or take what she has- they instead want to see her go back to what she was writing before. That’s hardly jealousy. I don’t doubt that there are some writers who would like to have what she does- the ability to have a book go on the bestselling list when the majority of it is poorly written sex scenes. But if that’s what they want, they’ll probably spend their time writing that way instead of spending their time trashing another person’s work.
The lesson here is this. You can’t control people’s reactions to work once you put it out there for public consumption. It may be tempting to fall into the “Let’s see you do better!” argument. But it’s completely unnecessary. For one thing, why encourage the potential competition? For another, it shouldn’t matter. Someone’s background and aspirations will not invalidate their opinions, or lessen the impact of their reactions. There’s nothing to be done about other people’s sentiments, but as a writer you can and should control your own, especially in the age of social media. If some people think your work is poorly written, then that’s ultimately their decision. Choosing to ignore that and keep writing what you like to write is a perfectly acceptable choice to make. Acting entitled and snotty because of what those people say is not.