I’m asked, often, what I feel about ‘‘the haters’’ or ‘‘the detractors’’ who don’t like me or my work, and I think it’s an odd question, because, to be blunt – I don’t care what those people think. Spewing unrestrained and unabashed vitriol across a page or in a public forum has always been a great way to call attention to oneself, and with the proliferation of platforms we have today, it’s easier than ever to wander around kicking people in the face and congratulating oneself about sticking it to the man.
I have done it myself.
Yes, I say this as someone who has baldly stated my opinion about various works for over a decade online, generally thoughtfully, angrily, and always passionately. From having been on both sides of the divide, I can say this confidently – listen to the people who are your target readers, and forget everyone else. If you’ve done something to bump them out of the story, something that didn’t achieve what you intended, they’ll let you know, and you should listen. But the people who think your work is unabashedly a ‘‘jumble of words’’ or ‘‘nonsensical,’’ well… these are not the readers you’re looking for.
One of the benefits of having done a series of workshops in my teens and early twenties is that I learned when and how to take criticism. Was the reader feedback pointing me to things I’d done that weren’t what I intended? Had I put in a lazy character trope or trait that not only bumped them out of the story, but was also not at all my intention? Then scrub it out – but when you have a reader who says, ‘‘I find it offensive and nonsensical that there’s a lesbian in this story,’’ well, that’s when I laugh quietly and put down my pen, because clearly this person is not my target reader. I’m not writing this book for them.
I am not writing this book for you, is a statement that often comes as a shock to readers. Writers are expected to be producers of widgets, and don’t we want to sell widgets to everyone? No. No, I do not.
There’s a quote attributed to Colin Powell that goes, ‘‘Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity.’’ Not everyone is going to like your book. Not everyone should like your work. The worst possible feedback I could ever get about a book is that is roused no response in a reader, that they could take or leave it. Then I’ve written a middle-of-the-road, unremarkable piece of fiction that no one is going to read or talk about anyway. Hatred, at least, inspires conversation, which mediocre work won’t.
Once you’ve got a passionate group of fans and critics, you can also identity ‘‘ideal readers’’ for your work. These are the people you’re writing it for. That’s not to say that they will always love what you write, but that your stories are tailored for readers like them. We tend to write books we like to read, and with upwards of six billion people on earth, there’s bound to be plenty of other folks who like the same things you do. The real challenge is finding them, and weeding through the noise to uncover them.
There are trolls who make it a point to hate everything, who delight in stirring up controversy, who live for the Author Behaving Badly moment that will spike their page views or get a tweet retweeted 1,500 times. Those are the people you need to ignore. Professional trolling is a real thing. I recommend folks read Confessions of a Media Manipulator to get an idea of how the modern click-for-dollars-outrage-machine works. Advertising models are not set up for constructive conversations. They are set up for pageviews. To achieve the pageviews that major media sites want, they must post either something salacious about a celebrity, or an outrage piece. Your author meltdown often qualifies.
Don’t allow people to make money off your meltdown.
Trolling is both a moneymaker and a game. Getting people to cry on camera, to talk about how afraid they are, to leave the Internet in a huff, to flee from their homes, is actually the end goal of this game. It inspires a community of professional trolls to keep at it (we keep doing things only if they provide us with positive reinforcement, after all, and trolls have a culture, too). When you have little groups of people who congratulate each other every time an author says how horrible they felt about a blistering review or hate storm, there’s nothing to be won by sharing that publicly. Share the annoyance with your friends, at the bar, or on private listservs. Not online. The reality is that the person who gets the most emotional online is the one who looks the worst when the fallout is over.
What we tend to forget, when we’re in the middle of a hate storm, is that we are a passing fad; we’re not considered real people. We’re just the latest piece of content. Give it enough time, lay low, mute and block and don’t read the comments, and it will pass. Then you can surface, review any of the feedback that looks legitimate, and carry on with your art. It’s what we do. It’s part of the job, now.
In reality, I have a pretty fabulous life, so maybe it’s easier for me to take the nonsense most days, but I also don’t go out looking for it. I don’t read the comments. I mute everyone on Twitter who comes at me. I have all my e-mail screened, so I only have to glance over hate mail when I feel like it, or simply empty it as trash, unread.
I have spent a decade sifting through feedback on and offline, and the reality is that when you live and speak publicly, there will always be people who dislike what you’re saying. My surprise actually came when I realized it wasn’t so much what I was saying that people didn’t like – it was that I was allowed to speak publicly at all, as if there was a test one had to pass, a lofty measurement or set of traits, or a bestseller list, or some gender requirement. As awful as it can feel when the Internet comes at you, the Internet cannot stop you speaking. It can’t silence you. The worst of the trolls are a small group of lonely, angry people who feel they have no voice. Sometimes those voiceless people need to be listened to – they are pointing out real issues with your work – and sometimes they are professional rage machines.
Determining the difference will save you a lot of heartache in your career. It’s a skill I encourage every new writer to cultivate. If you have to, bring a common complaint you’re seeing to a few trusted friends. Ask if they feel it’s legitimate. And ask yourself: is this really what I meant to say? Have I said this as clearly as I could have and it’s being blown out of proportion, or did I need to communicate myself more clearly?
One of the reasons no one can silence me is not just my profound stubbornness and indifference in the face of rage mobs, nor my ability to find the signal in the noise. I stay in this game because I’ve met my passionate fans, my target audience. I get 1,000% more fan mail than hate mail. I get fan mail of the ‘‘You changed my life’’ variety. People who came out to their parents because of something I wrote, folks who found the courage to leave an abusive partner. Folks who moved across the country. Changed jobs. Went back to school. People read things I write and it gives them hope and inspiration and comfort, too; comfort that they are not so different. They are not alone. That the world can be really different.
It’s that love, that profound love, that will keep me here, that will keep me speaking, and that will keep me carrying on, long after the hate speech has been buried in an explosion of fragmented pixels.