When to Ignore Your Reviews

I’ve gotten a lot of valuable advice and criticism from my writing group (and other groups before them). I’ve gotten a good deal more from magazine editors who’ve offered explanations why they turned down my stories.
My usual approach is to glance at whatever I’m told (or listen, with the group), set it aside and look at it again a week later (sometimes more, depending on schedule). At that point I can get past my sense “How dare they tell me my masterpiece has flaws?” and look at what they say objectively. Because usually they’re right.
But sometimes not. Looking at my experiences and other writers’ accounts, I think there are times to just say No, You’re Wrong.
•Matters of Taste.
In the non-genre writing group I used to attend, one of the writers has a serious novel about a priest looking back on his life in Baltimore. It’s not even remotely my kind of thing (serious modern literature doesn’t work for me 90 percent of the time), so I’ve never offered any opinions.
Likewise, if someone who doesn’t like hardboiled detective stories or historical romances or fantasy dismisses it because I’m writing in that genre (here‘s an example), I’m not going to give that much weight.
Sometimes, even within genre editors/fellow writers, taste becomes an issue. One editor turned down my short story One Hand Washes the Other because the protagonist was too unsympathetic. As the story depends on him being unsympathetic (otherwise the climax doesn’t work) I decided not to make changes and subsequently sold it to Abyss and Apex (no direct link—they haven’t set up their back issue archive on the new site).
•Matters of Principle.
Maybe it’s really important to you that your hero’s best friend is a gay man. Or that you portray mixed-race romance in a positive light, or that your Chinese high-schooler is a non-stereotypical Asian(beefy athlete rather than a computer nerd or martial artist, say). And someone says well, that’s nice, but I really object to this part—or even that buying the story hinges on changing it.
And this stuff happens. I remember when Ursula LeGuin complained that Sci-Fi’s Earthsea had racebent her non-white protagonist, Ged, one blogger accused her of being a racist: He’d never picked up that Ged was non-white (it’s not emphasized) and it offended him that she thought it was important. Maybe he’d have said the same thing if he’d been in her critique group.
Two Y/A authors blogged last year (no link, sorry) about being told their new series was great—provided they de-gayed a major supporting character, or at least didn’t specify his orientation until later in the series, after the fans were hooked.
In this case also it’s perfectly reasonable to dismiss the criticism—though if the sale of your book hinges on it, you may not want to. Some authors have ignored editorial demands and found someone else to publish their book (IMHO, the gay elements of Interview With the Vampire turned off some publishers), but I’m sure others have had less success.
The pro-choice elements in The Impossible Takes a Little Longer are important to me, but the book doesn’t descend on them: If a publisher said “drop that and we have a deal”—I honestly have no idea what I’d do (hopefully, stick to my guns, but that’s easy to say now).
One obvious catch with this post is that it can easily be turned into a refusal to listen to valid criticism. If you’ve written a massive polemic for why environmentalism/abortion/Islam/capitalism is bad, make sure the issue isn’t how you’re writing rather than the details of your message (I have to make an effort to focus on the story when I’m critiquing one from a libertarian/right-wing persepctive rather than arguing with what they say). Likewise, if I’d heard every editor consistently say my One Hand Washes the Other lead was too unsympathetic, I’d have to start rethinking how I was portraying him.
But at other times, you can ignore with a clean conscience.

1 Comment

Filed under Story Problems, Writing

One response to “When to Ignore Your Reviews

  1. Pingback: Listening to the critics | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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