Humiliation. Anger. Depression. All three emotions gripped me the day I discovered that a local politician had referred to me, in a letter to the editor, as a “greener-than-thou guttersnipe.”
Never mind that the insult was clever retaliation for an opinion piece in which I’d criticized an environmental group for using plastic plates and cups at a fund-raiser. My local newspaper has a circulation of 77,000. For weeks, I slunk around town convinced my friends and colleagues had read the slur and were snickering behind my back.
Portland writer Chelsea Cain found herself similarly maligned for her witty “Calendar Girl” column in The Oregonian when her editor ran a reader’s rant labeling Cain “an embarrassment to the history of humor writing.”
“After its publication, 30 people e-mailed to tell me they like my column,” Cain says. “Still, I felt like I’d been stabbed in the neck.”
Professional writers are easy targets for public criticism. Often, bylines include an e-mail address, inviting instant responses from critics. How can writers handle public criticism with grace and humor? How do we acknowledge hurt feelings? Most importantly, how do we find the confidence to continue writing?
For Marna Bunger, criticism arrived in the form of e-mails flooding her inbox after her opinion piece about online dating appeared last year in the Los Angeles Times. Bunger, a veteran writer, had written a humorous article despairing over “sun-soaked and self-absorbed” single men in Los Angeles. Online newsgroups picked up the article and readers across the country condemned Bunger’s point of view.
Among the scathing retorts, though, she received positive responses. “Fathers e-mailed me, letting me know they had a ‘good’ son for me, and not to give up on L.A. men,” she says. “A reporter at the Miami Herald said I was brilliant.”
Nonetheless, public criticism doesn’t always result in such illustrious kudos. While writing for Newsday, current Washington Post Writers Group columnist Marie Cocco regularly received negative letters. “You let them roll off your back,” she says. But after she tackled the topic of abortion in a column, a reader threatened to have authorities take her children away. Cocco asked her editor to intervene and Newsday executives informed the reader that any further threats would be referred to the police. “That ended it,” Cocco says.
TERROR AND APOLOGIES
Public response is inevitable when we put our work into the world. Positive feedback is a joy to receive, but negative comments aggravate even seasoned writers.
Dr. Rachna D. Jain is a licensed psychologist in Maryland with many academic clients who must defend their work against public criticism. “They feel tense, misunderstood and angry after an attack,” Jain says. “Some writers take it personally and question their paths.”
Last spring, a critic from Portland’s second largest newspaper wrote a scathing account of a course I taught at a literary festival. Never mind that dozens of students e-mailed me rave reviews—I was scheduled to teach the same course at a conference the following week, and my terror was palpable. What if I really was boring and sophomoric, as the critic had suggested? Should I stop teaching altogether?
It’s tempting to consider a career change, or at least a long vacation, after a particularly vitriolic public response. Perhaps a wiser and more empowering reaction, however, lies in a conscientious reply to one’s critics.
“I’ve received all manner of abusive mail in which the writer uses profanity and sexually degrading comments to attack me,” Cocco says. “Sometimes I ignore it; occasionally, I write back ‘Thank you for your note. Your word choice is interesting. I’m sure your mother is proud of you.’ On one occasion, a man who received this response wrote back to apologize.”
National Review Editor Rich Lowry receives dozens of opposing letters every week in response to his column. Lowry makes no apologies for his political writing or for the readers he inflames. “I write so much stuff that’s critical of so many people that public criticism of my own work is only fair in a karmic sense,” he says, noting that it’s important to respond to critics in good humor, and not defensively. “If you let your emotions get the best of you, you’ll come off looking poorly.”
Jain also cautions against responding to public attacks in the heat of emotion. “Try to depersonalize the criticism,” she says. “The immediacy of e-mail can lead people to abandon their best judgment. People can fire off an e-mail without thinking. Avoid taking it as a personal attack.” She adds that writers don’t need to respond to every e-mail. However, Cocco tries to answer all her mail, as does Cain. “The key is not to respond to critical e-mail right away,” Cain says. “Every cell in your body wants to write a negative response, but it’s important to give it 24 hours.” She notes that last year, an angry reader criticized her for portraying actor Woody Harrelson as a “pothead and a loon” in a profile. After several e-mails back and forth, the reader apologized for reacting defensively and admitted that Cain had a valid reason for the angle she’d taken in the article.
ICE CREAM AND TOURNIQUETS
Given a positive attitude, public criticism can be affirming. “If you’re in the opinion business, you want to be criticized to show you’re stirring things up,” Lowry says. “No matter how nasty and hard-hitting the criticism, it’s ultimately a compliment to your work.”
But what if you can’t see the silver lining in a cloud of despair? I follow up particularly hurtful criticism with a weekend spent backpacking or watching "The Simpsons" reruns with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s—anything that takes me away from my computer and bruised ego. Jain suggests that writers make a “success notebook” of positive things people have said about their work, and read it when they’re down.
Cain points out that for a writer, avoiding criticism is impossible. “It’s a part of the job,” she says. “I don’t like it, but I understand that there will be people who don’t like my work. So I write stuff that I like, and if I get an angry letter, I wrap a tourniquet around the stab wound and keep on writing.”
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