Grace: It’s Not Just What You Say Before Dinner

I had the start of a post about newer writers, and how they comport themselves the first time someone turns a critical eye upon their work.  Usually, it’s not pretty.

Usually, it involves a whole lot of drama and flouncing.

Surely, I thought, though there are notable exceptions. Most established authors don’t react so viscerally.

Way to make me have to rethink my whole post, Alice Hoffman.

The short(ish) version, for those who haven’t followed teh dramaz over the last few days:  Roberta Silman published her review of Hoffman’s newest book, The Story Sisters, in the Boston Sunday Globe last weekend.  It wasn’t a ringing endorsement by any means, pointing out what Silman felt were serious flaws in both the writing and the book’s major plot points.  It’s not a mean-spirited review — Silman mentions up front that she’s enjoyed Hoffman’s writing in the past, and this book failed to live up to its predecessors.  That’s not cruel; it’s honest.  Silman expects better from this writer.

Alice Hoffman, however, didn’t see it that way.  She fired off 27 rather angry tweets, (“Roberta Silman in the Boston Globe is a moron. How do some people get to review books? And give the plot away.”), and supplying her phone number and e-mail address to her followers, requesting that they let her know what they think of “snarky critics”.  (Hoffman’s twitter account has been deleted, but you can see some of the now-infamous tweets screencapped over at Gawker.)

After ye olde interwebs finished their analysis of the event, Hoffman issued an “apology” via The Christian Science Monitor:

I feel this whole situation has been completely blown out of proportion. Of course I was dismayed by Roberta Silman’s review which gave away the plot of the novel, and in the heat of the moment I responded strongly and I wish I hadn’t. I’m sorry if I offended anyone. Reviewers are entitled to their opinions and that’s the name of the game in publishing. I hope my readers understand that I didn’t mean to hurt anyone and I’m truly sorry if I did.

It’s the “ifs” in there that make the apology mean exactly nothing.  “If I offended anyone.”  “…if I did.”  So close, yet so far.  In addition to the ifs, the suggestion that the situation has been blown out of proportion comes off as scolding rather than being truly contrite. There’s also an attempt at self-justification in there (“Silman gave away the plot.”)  That doesn’t make posting her phone number okay.  Yes, Silman’s review depended heavily on a recap of the book’s events, but honestly, I didn’t see anything that screamed, oh, I dunno, Snape kills Dumbledore! (And you know what? “Snape kills Dumbledore” still doesn’t give everything away.)

Agent Kristin Nelson nails it:

Uh, authors don’t do this. A reviewer is entitled to his or her opinion (hence, the point of reviews).

If you don’t like a review, you don’t like it. Move on. Trust me, mea culpas are not a position of strength. Regardless of whether you are justified or not, this does not put you, the author, in a positive light.

Hoffman reacted poorly, and in a public place.  Is it okay for her to be dismayed by the review? Yes, absolutely.  Is it okay for her to try to incite her twitter-followers to pick up their pitchforks and go after Silman?  No.  It makes me uncomfortable to think she believed it was okay to give out Silman’s phone number to over a thousand people, and encourage them to harrass her over a poor review.  The number she posted, by the way, was incorrect.  Good for Silman, but I have to wonder, if it was a valid phone number, if some poor uninvolved soul spent a day receiving angry sockpuppet calls and wondered what the hell was going on.

And, this just in: yet another author behaving badly.  I’ll let you read for yourselves.

My original post revolved around a newish writer over at Ficly, who posted a story that was… well.  It had a lot of flaws. Other people made the same suggestions I would have.  Some were a bit blunt, but not a one was mean.  The author responded with snark at first and eventually played the “I’m young, be nice to me” card.

Now, the beauty of the Ficly community is the wide range of talent posting there.  Writers who have been honing their craft for years and are bloody brilliant are posting alongside people who are still learning (like, well, me), and offering their suggestions on how the stories can be improved.  No one’s out to get anyone else (or, if they are, they’re trolls and should be ignored.)

It’s very hard to put your work out there, because you don’t know how it will be received.  It’s also hard, when you consider something good enough to show to the faceless masses, to find out that maybe it wasn’t quite ready.  This is the face the world will see.  You’ll be judged by the quality of your work.

How embarrassing — here you thought these jeans made your butt look great, but someone’s come along and pointed out the hole on the left cheek that you didn’t catch when you looked in the mirror.  Thing is, though, the people offering their criticism aren’t pointing and laughing and shouting “I see London, I see France;” they’re saying, “Here, tie my sweatshirt around your waist until we can get that fixed.”

What I’m getting at here is this: when someone responds to your work with the genuine intention to help you make it better, flouncing around shouting “NO U” and “Clearly you just don’t understand my writing” and “You’re so meeeeean” only makes you look immature.  It makes people less inclined to offer help in the future, and then, well, your work suffers for it.

It’s okay to be stung, a bit.  It’s okay to call a good friend and bitch, or to fume while staring at your monitor (or the newspaper article.)  But when you put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, brilliant retorts clamoring to fill that white space, that’s when you sit back and take a breath.  Look at the critique again.  What is the person trying to tell you?  Where do they lose interest in your story, what sections are they pointing out that tell more than show? Can you implement any of that advice to make the story better?  Do it.  Try it, even if you don’t keep the changes.

If you’re responding, be polite.  Be gracious.  Ask for clarification, if you need to, but do it nicely.  Even if someone was blunt, or said something that made you wince, vitriol only exacerbates the situation and draws attention away from your work and onto you — most times in a very negative way.

The opening phrase you’re looking for — whether it’s the very first time you’ve shared your work or whether you’re a New York Times bestselling author ten times over — is thank you.

A lot of the time, the best response is to be like Thumper: if ya can’t say somethin’ nice, don’t say nuttin’ at all.  However, if that’s impossible, grace and good humor go a long way.

I’ll leave you with one of those bestselling authors whose book really did get panned pretty harshly, and an example of how he Did It Right and turned the bad reviews into a humorous ad for the book in question.  Ladies and gentlemen, Brad Meltzer (h/t to Lilith Saintcrow):

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