On Dealing with Criticism (and the Pain that Comes with it)

 

Here’s something that’s true in everything in life – criticism is hard to take. No one wants to hear what they’re doing wrong. Even helpful criticism, like ‘you’re breath stinks’ is generally deflating. In writing, criticism is a required element, a constant that will hurt every time you hear it. But it’s necessary. It gets easier over time as you learn to take in what you need and discard what you don’t, but if being told where you’ve gone wrong is something that cuts you deep, you’re gonna’ find it tough to succeed in the writing world.

I know the pain. When my novel came out I was, of course, incredibly excited. I bought the newspapers every weekend hoping to find a review of my book – and all the feedback I’d had on it to that stage was positive, so I was hoping for more of the same. The first review I read was in The Age – The Age being the most respected newspaper for literary content in my home state. The reviewer, Thuy On, had this to say:

‘Rohypnol tries a bit too hard to impress by following the “boys behaving badly and lashing out at society’s moralistic strictures” template, but we’ve read it all before and it doesn’t offer anything else to this particular sub-genre.’

It hurt – oh, it hurt. My life’s biggest achievement, something I’d been wholly committed to for years, torn down in one sentence. I felt shamed, depressed. People I grew up with would be reading this, all my bragging rights as a published author shrunk down to a passing remark. Maybe I wasn’t good enough, maybe the publisher had got it wrong and I wasn’t talented. I know the pain all too well – and this was in a major newspaper.

And there were others.

From The Australian:

‘When a novel begins with the line “Troy f—ed up”, you can probably guess its ambition will be to shock and that this is unlikely to be carried out successfully. A ready use of expletives, like shape poems and the liberal application of exclamation marks, are devices that quickly lose their effect and purpose.’

Yep. The Australian is a national publication. This is what people were going to read about my pride and joy, Australia-wide.

A commentator on GoodReads had this helpful critique:

‘Wanting to be an author myself I figured I should start supporting Australian fiction, so I bought this as it looked interesting and as though it may have something to say. Even though I wasn’t going into it expecting Heart Of Darkness I still came away majorly disappointed. No wonder Aussie fiction doesn’t get much recognition; the characters are 2-D, unbelieveably stereotypical and bland and the story makes no sense. The characters are like try-hard anarchists, date raping women and turning their backs on their parents and society at large. Having the main character follow these flimsy ideals makes the whole premise seem ridiculous. Plot holes also abound, not the least of which the fact a well known group of date rapists live within the community and are never confronted nor questioned by peers. Picked this up wanting to like it, but for drug induced humour and working class violence and profanity I’ll stick with Irvine Welsh.’

Weak characters? Plot holes? Excuse me? This isn’t something I just chucked together on a weekend, this is the result of hundreds of hours of work, and you’re just taking me down like that? And worse, I’m the reason you’ve lost faith in Australian fiction as a whole? That’s quite the weight to bear.

Compare these to the worst critiques you’ve ever had. I’m guessing they’re worse or, at the least, on par.

Every single criticism hurts, but you have to take it in. You have to absorb the info, process it, then cross-check those comments against what you’re trying to achieve. Were they valid criticisms? Were they accurate to your intentions? Are you confident that your work is as good as it could be? This last one is the key – you have to know you’ve done the work, that you’ve done all you can, and that the finished product is what you want it to be. If you can have faith in that and be true to yourself, you’ll be more resilient to the critical swipes and stings. You have to be strong, trust your instincts, and stick to what you do. Because there is one other aspect of criticism that’s important to keep in perspective, a crucial balancing point to counter the pain of negativity.

Criticism comes trailing behind success. The more successful you are, the more people read your work, and the more people read your work, the higher the chance some people are going to dislike it. Nothing in the world that is universally liked. There are millions, maybe even billions, of people who love Justin Bieber, but I don’t know any of them. And as you or I sit back and scoff at Bieber’s latest antics, there are way more people looking at that same story with wide-eyed adoration. We are not the target audience, but as his popularity expands, we’re exposed to his work. And we don’t like it. We’re haters only because he’s big enough to be within our realm of awareness. The more widely known you are, the more people are going to see your work, which, inevitably, means more people are going to hate it. That’s how it is. So in some ways, criticism can be seen as a measure of how well you’re doing – in order for people to criticise you, they have to be aware of you. And one person’s opinion is never going to define your success. Don’t let it sink you – your stuff isn’t their thing, no problem, there are billions of others who might check it out. A single opinion is not indicative of what you do.

To support that point, and to close out the post on a positive, below are a couple of the notes of praise that the book also received. On balance, I got way more positive comments than negative (the book generally averages 4-star reviews on most book review sites), but like anything, the bad ones stand out. You can’t let negativity get into your heart – read it, go for a walk, think it through, then keep the notes you need and discard the ones you don’t. You need to keep learning, keep improving and keep pursuing what you’re passionate about. And one piece of advice that was given to me very early on: Don’t ever respond to critical reviews of your work. No good ever comes of that.

‘Andrew Hutchinson’s debut novel Rohypnol is a great read. It’s assured, convincingly portrayed and grippingly plotted’ – Andy Murdoch, MX Magazine

‘Hutchinson weaves this plot with fierce authority and it is this that makes it such a standout debut. From the first paragraph you are confident this storyteller knows exactly where he is going to take you and, with such an assured, strong voice, he has the power to take you anywhere. This is no small feat.’ Louise Swinn, Sydney Morning Herald

‘A blistering, almost terrifying novel about social alienation, wrought in stark and pitiless prose, it paints a disturbing portrait of a nameless protagonist whose violence is without social cause or particular reason.’ – Kathleen Mitchell Award 2008 shortlist comments

 

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