Ignoring the H8Rs.

by Tess Gerritsen

Recently I came across the premise for a new reality TV show called “H8R,” which, for those of us who are text-message neophytes, translates as: “Hater.”  Here’s the description:

On this reality show, celebrities go head-to-head with regular people who don’t like them. They try to win their adversaries over and, in the process, reveal person behind the famous name. Mario Lopez hosts the program which includes two celebrities in each episode.

The haters are not told about the show’s actual premise when they’re recruited. Producers tell them a different type of documentary or show is being shot but extensive background checks are done to ensure the haters are not also stalkers. In some cases, the celebrities nominate their haters, who they know from the Internet or Twitter.

For people who aren’t celebrities, it may come as a surprise that celebrities can, in fact, feel personally wounded by cruel remarks made by complete strangers. When Gwyneth Paltrow started amassing hordes of such haters, I wondered how she felt about it.  I also wondered why anyone would bother hating a woman just because she’s a blonde, beautiful, talented gal who likes to share lifestyle tips.  It’s the same thing I wondered about people who hate Martha Stewart with such gusto, investing a great deal of emotional energy attacking a woman they don’t personally know. When I thumb through her LIVING magazine to gawk at her impossibly elaborate craft projects, I don’t feel jealousy or disdain. What I feel is resignation, because I know I’d probably end up hot-glueing my own head to the ceiling fan. I’ll never be as capable as Martha Stewart, but that’s okay with me. 

You don’t have to read the National Enquirer to know that the most-envied celebrities are often the public’s favorite targets of vilification.  It’s the people we want to be or look like, the people who have what we want to have, that catch the brunt of public hatred.  Celebrities aren’t really human, so how could they possibly have human feelings?  They’re rich, they’re beautiful, they’re successful, so why should they care if complete strangers spew hateful things about them?

Some people think it’s fun and amusing and harmless to hate the Marthas and Gwyneths and Brangelinas, and to express that hatred online so the world can share our bile.  But celebrity is only a matter of degree.  Just about anyone can be considered a public person these days.  Restaurant chefs. Athletes. Policemen.  

And writers.

A few weeks ago, novelist JA Konrath posted a blog entry called “Not Caring,” about how important it is for writers to develop thick skins.  

One of the greatest skills you can acquire as an author is a thick skin.

 Once you unleash a story onto the world, it no longer belongs to you. When it was in your head, and on your computer during the writing/rewriting process, it was a personal, private thing. But the moment your words go out into the world, they are subject to the opinion of strangers. What was once personal is now public.

 Do yourself a huge favor, and don’t listen to the public.

 This goes for more than your literary endeavors. If you blog, or speak in public, or tweet on Twitter, you are a Public Figure.

 That means some people aren’t going to like you.

 And you shouldn’t care.

 You hear this very wise advice from non-writers as well.  That we writers shouldn’t give a damn about reviews.  That writers should stop whining and pull on their “big-girl panties.” That being published means you have no right to be sensitive to whatever anyone, anywhere, says about you.  But that advice isn’t always easy to take, and I know many authors who are still personally wounded by a bad review or snarky comments on Amazon. One very talented debut novelist, a man who’s hitting bestseller lists around the world, told me that the hardest thing about being published was learning to take the blows.  He knew he was thin-skinned, and he tried to prepare himself for public criticism, yet he was taken aback by how much it hurt.

“Crybaby!” I can hear the public sneering.  “Why don’t you man up and grow a pair?” 

On a readers’ forum, I came across comments by two teachers who smugly observed that, unlike crybaby writers, when teachers get performance reviews, they’re mature enough to deal with the negative ones. They said that writers are a privileged and lucky group (whose average income, by the way, is less than $10,000) so no one should sympathize with them. Writers should stop whining and be as tough as everyone else whose work gets reviewed by superiors. For crying out loud, writers should learn to be as tough as teachers.

Then, a few months later, a tragic thing happened.  In a new policy introduced by the Los Angeles Times, L.A. public school teachers’ performance ratings were published in the newspaper.   A highly dedicated teacher, despondent over his merely average rating, committed suicide.  

I’m wondering if it suddenly became clear to those teachers that public criticism, public exposure, feels like a different thing entirely than does a private performance review.  When your boss tells you you need to shape up, that can sting.  But when that performance review is online and in the newspapers for your neighbors and colleagues to see and talk about, that’s a level of embarrassment that not everyone can deal with.

Not surprisingly, many teachers were upset about the dead teacher’s public shaming and suicide.  Just as they’re upset when they’re called lousy teachers by students on Facebook.   

Yet that’s what writers routinely put up with.  It comes with the job — a job that pays the average writer about as much as a part-time dishwasher — and we have to learn to deal with it.

But it’s not easy.

 

32 thoughts on “Ignoring the H8Rs.

  1. Reine

    Hi Tess,

    The very topic of public criticism is stressful for me. I am hugely socially agoraphobic, and I have never understood the need for personal sniping that some appear to have. I don't mean generic sniping and snarkiness. I love that when it involves humor, especially. But the direct shot or even the direct shot disguised as indirect is first embarrassing, then irritating, and sometimes humiliating. I'm also aware that it can sound a bit paranoid of me to even say this.

    Off and on I've had someone "stalk" my posts and follow them with their own. Their posts usually criticise spelling or grammar errors that many people make that annoy them (that I'd just made or frequently make, even purposely for some reason). Sometimes it will be an opinion differing from my own that I'd just commented. The differences of opinion are not problematic for me. It's the way this person waits (once of twice until three or four in the morning) to post theirs right after mine. It took me a long time to notice this, but after a number of them I knew it wasn't my imagination or some strange paranoia. But, I'm not certain that it couldn't develop that way if I find myself always on the lookout. These things can really get to you after awhile. I suppose that's why they do it.

    I find it troublesome that it bothers me. It's little comfort knowing that I am probably the only person who has noticed this. And now I am curious to see if they will stop, now that I am posting this. Heh.

  2. tess gerritsen

    Reine,

    just admitting the fact one is sensitive to attacks seems to bring on even more criticism. The bullies love the fact they drew blood, and it makes them bully harder.

    First they say: "Your writing stinks."
    Then they say: "Oh, that little comment bothered you? Well, you're a crybaby too!"

    Here's the thing. I suspect that whether people admit it or not, most are bothered by public criticism. Some are just more honest about it.

    I haven't watched the TV show H8R, but I hear that, when confronted by their victim, those who made hateful comments turn out to be completely shell-shocked that they've been caught at it.

  3. Kim Wright

    Writers have to do a strange balancing act in the sense you have to be sensitive, thin-skinned and almost porous to write but once the book comes out you're expected to be insensitive, thick-skinned, and resilient. And you're expected to make the change in a nanosecond.

  4. Pari Noskin

    I've always wondered about writers without strong personal support systems. With the criticism and general insecurity that comes with the job, how do they survive? And yet some of the worst critics come from within our own — due to envy, jealousy or whatever.

    That's one thing that continues to amaze and delight me about the mystery community of writers; overall they're a group of people that really enjoy and support each other. I haven't found that to be true of many other lit communities. So I'm doubly grateful for the creative group in which I spend most of my time.

  5. tess gerritsen

    Pari, actually, I think writers are pretty supportive of each other in general. The harshest criticism seems to come from people who aren't published, but think they should be.

  6. Michelle martin

    I'm torn about this post. On the one hand I absolutely understand why no one wants to be publicly ridiculed or humiliated, but criticism is to be expected if you put your work or opinion 'out there' voluntarily. I have a little bitty blog with less than 50 followers. It's mostly to keep up with the books I read and my reviews. I get the heebie jeebies every time I have a comment because I'm fearful that the poster might be negative. I can't control what others think though so if I'm putting it out there for public consumption I have to accept that others may not agree. Gwyneth Paltrow is a beautiful, talented actor. As soon as she decided to start giving out her 'tips' to be a better whatever, she opened herself to criticism. An author has to expect some bad reviews. Don't you? It's nice to know that an author as talented as you are still has some slight insecurities. It makes me as a reader think of you more as a real person. I love your books! I love Rizzoli and Isles on TNT. Your last book wasn't my favorite. I gave it a mediocre review. I don't expect you to lose any sleep over it though. I'm still waiting for the next book and I'll read it as eagerly as I did the others. Criticism…yes, ridicule and humiliation…no.

  7. Jennie Coughlin

    Great post. I've seen some of the hate on Twitter directed at writers I know who are more well-known than myself, and I always worry it will drive them off Twitter because of the nastiness. I was joking with some friends in my writers group this weekend that my skin's pretty thick from a lifetime in newsrooms and repeated exposure to some old-school editors, but harsh reviews still sting. I think it's the price we pay for being writers and putting ourselves and our work out there, but it doesn't make it any easier to take.

  8. gayle

    I think part of the problem is the anonymity on the internet. People feel free to say things that they would never say in person. I also think that some people say outrageous things just to get a reaction out of others.

    It is hard to accept any type of criticism. To have it be public, just makes it worse. However, writers who want reviews posted on Amazon, surely can't expect that all of them will be positive. Not everyone likes everything. Writers requesting reviews, need to be able to accept that not all of them will be positive. Any honest review should be acceptable to a writer.

  9. Tammy Cravit

    I agree with what Gayle said – I think that, in the era of anonymous Internet commentary, we've lost some of the basic civility that used to attend public criticism. My spouse and I had an incident last year where a group of people who took offense to some things she said in an online forum took it upon themselves to cyber-stalk us. Found our home address and pictures of us and posted them. Found out where our daughter was going to summer camp and made credible threats to harm us and abduct her. (Or at least, credible enough that the FBI and the US Attorney's Office were involved, though no charges were ultimately filed.)

    While tracking down the offenders, we discovered whole online communities dedicated to systematic, deliberate online harassment of those with whom they disagreed for whatever reason. The cyber-stalkers even made a false child abuse report against us, and in one of their discussions online made a comment along the lines of "when we call Child Protective Services, we need to make sure not to let on that we do this sort of thing routinely; they won't take us seriously if they know that we've done this before."

    Do authors need to develop a thick skin for criticism and rejection? Absolutely. I know MY skin got a lot thicker during the time I was writing for my local newspaper, and that's helping me now as I work to join the ranks of *published* mystery writers. But I think that readers and critics have a responsibility too, to civil discourse. I suspect most readers would probably agree with me, but the ones who would agree aren't likely the problem.

  10. David Corbett

    The actor Joseph Chaikin said the only legitimate response to a work of art is another work of art. When responding to criticism, reflect on what you believe to be valid, take note of what you consider invalid, then forget about it. There's nothing more to be gained.

    What the Internet has provided is a forum in which all opinions can seemingly have equal weight — and there is an eerie abundance of them. Though many commenters will be easily identified as intelligent and reflective, and others will be easily dismissed as bizarre or senselessly vituperative, it's the middle muddle that troubles me more. (Excuse the alliteration.)

    There are just so many people, on Goodreads and Amazon in particular, who seemingly have all the earmarks of intelligence but who, for whatever reason, either have little valuable to say about a book, or miss the point so clearly it's just plain odd. I'm talking about books I've enjoyed, not just my own. They dismiss a wonderful book and give it low marks while seeming to be honest, reasonably bright, and moderate in tone. And yet, if you know the book, what they're saying is so wildly off base you wonder if you actually read the same words.

    Jake is right, once a book leaves your hands, it's no longer you're own. But I'm guessing he doesn't ignore his good responses as summarily as his bad ones. And the only way to read the one is to plow through the other.

    Some responses will be almost intergalactically clueless. But before the dawn of the Internet, we didn't need to read the sheer abundance of miscomprehension. And perhaps it is wise not to. But if you want to read the good responses, both positive and critical, how do you not? Ignoring the public is unwise. You don't need a thick skin so much as a keen intuition for what is sound criticism and what isn't.

    Remarks from readers, both good and bad, are one of the richest experiences for a writer. I've had the best reader response ever from my last book, and in the paucity of review space, that response has been very gratifying. I'd hate to be shut off from that entirely. Especially if I did so because of a flood of digital venom.

  11. tess gerritsen

    Gayle, A friend of mine has coined the phrase Access + Anonymity = A**hole.

    Tammy, wow, what you experienced went beyond online harassment to a terrifying crime of stalking. Journalists and newspapers editors have it far worse than novelists, because if there's anything people hate, it's another person's opinion.

    David, as much as we love seeing nice comments about our work, I suspect that reading a single bad comment in the mix has a far longer-lasting effect on mood and productivity. It's to the point where many authors avoid reading any Amazon reviews at all just for self-protection. Even though we already know that some of those bad comments will be, as you so wonderfully described it, intergalactically clueless.

  12. Kim Wright

    I've found Goodreads to be much rougher than Amazon or blogposts and I'm not sure why. Sometimes I think it's a site full of would-be writers who like to take a jab at anyone who's been published through sheer sour grapes. The reviews tend to be longer, more thoughtful, and more specific than those on Amazon. And much more likely to be negative.

  13. Lisa Alber

    Great post. I do wonder how I'll fare when my first novel eventually gets published (maintaining hope, now there's a topic for a blog post…). I'm not thick-skinned at all. In fact, I am a crybaby. The level of hating going on out there is so high that at times it feels like ignorable white noise. In a frustrating world, people are venting their frustrations–that has nothing to do with me. Of course, maintaining a detached perspective probably won't work when it's my novel out there. For now, I brave the public space with my little blog; in fact, I started the blog for this very reason, to accustom myself to how it feels to have my words out there. And I have to say, even my little blog feels like I'm exposing too much of myself sometimes. I call it post-traumatic social anxiety disorder: Oh no, was that lame? Will people take what I wrote the wrong? Will they think I'm stupid? Crass? God forbid, a bad writer? Like Reine, I find it troublesome that these thoughts enter my head. What a waste of creative brain space!

  14. Angela

    In my limited experience, a person generally hates you for one of three reasons:
    1) They want to be you.
    2) They hate themselves.
    3) They see you as a threat.

    I'm not a writer per se, but rather a graphic designer, so I'm fairly well acquainted with public and private criticism. I always endeavor to remember what a design teacher told me early on:
    "People should either love what you do or hate what you do. If they have no feeling about your work, then you have failed as an artist." Not that when people hate your work makes you feel good, but at least you know you've touched them in some way.

  15. tess gerritsen

    Kim,
    it sounds like Goodreads is another site writers should avoid visiting!

    Lisa, good luck on selling that novel. And embrace your inner crybaby. It's healthy to know yourself so well, and not feel you have to defend yourself because of it.

  16. Dave Clark

    Too often, we read invective into online comments, when I often find that we've run into a case of someone who did not express themselves as they really meant, and part of the problem is … um …maybe a little too much caffeine intake on our part? Sniping is the easy way to comment, and I find it's not the ogre it's cracked up to be. I got a couple of less-than-stellar reviews of my first book, and I noticed one thing: The were largely on obscure websites buried under uncountable layers of internet searches. The few remaining were either totally squirrel-generated, or they were worth a try at a respective and considered response. Now, those last few prove much of my point. The fact that I, the "target", replied, and in an attentive and respectful manner produced a universal turnaround in these people, as well as new fans, friends, and correspondents. Most people, if you work at it just a little, really are okay.

  17. Stefan Bisig

    I have to agree with Angela: The worst thing ever is to be completely ignored. I understand it is not easily to handle critics, but at least you have a reaction, and maybe you must agree with a bad criticism at the end. When rereading things I wrote years ago (though not published), I have to say the critics of these days were right (that is why these texts were not published and my life as an author ended – but maybe you can see a relevation!). At the time of writing, I completely disagreed of course. Critics can be devastating, but if an opinion is sincere (and not harmful in language) , it is best to take it as it is: that person's thoughts and feelings about your work.

    And it is true that the internet allows people to interact directly, though anonymous. In the aeons before, the reactions of the public were filtered by publishers, newspapers etc. Today, these filters are gone, and every a**hole can reach out to any person he or she wants to. But I think that if a person behaves like an a**hole in the internet, he or she does also in RL – or he/she has an environment where he/she does not dare.

    If you publish your work, you become a public person, so you must deal with people's opinions. But it is way too different if your work is publicly criticised if you did not wish to (be) publish(ed) – as in the teacher's case. In that case, it'd have been the newspaper's (or the school administrations's) responsability not to publish these criticisms. I hope LA has stopped this policy.

  18. Louise Ure

    A couple of points, Tess. First, you're absolutely right that one negative comment or review can have the weight of ten good ones. (Why are those negative ones the only ones I memorize?)

    Second, I grew a thicker skin by watching football and baseball. Imagine if we were judged not on our completed works, but on each individual play? It would be like having each sentence disparaged as we wrote it. And yet, that's what athletes have to put up with as the network commentators judge each down or each at bat. Ugh.

  19. Alafair Burke

    Tess, Your friend Gayle is a genius. I not only get public performance reviews on Amazon, Good Reads, etc. but also as Professor Burke on sites like Rate My Professor. It never matters if there's a hundred good reviews. That one meanie is the one that sticks.

  20. lil Gluckstern

    I'm worried about the state of the world. When cruelty, and being oh so clever at the expense of an other becomes the norm, life simply isn't fun. I tend to be old fashioned, and if I don't like a book, i will probably not comment on it. On the other hand, when I love a book, and I like the author-through their blogs, etc-I write a positive review. I also have no patience with "fashionable" authors and books, but I don't critique them. It is very hard to remember to consider the source, but sometimes I think negative reviews are more about the person writing it, rather than the book. My 2 cents πŸ™‚

  21. Alexandra Sokoloff

    It's funny about the freedom of e publishing. It makes you much more susceptible to thought of "Is this (one negative review) right? Should I just rewrite that part to make it more clear?"

    Crazy! You'd think I'd know by now that I'm not any more to everyone's taste than anyone else is. I think it's a good thing to be open to comments that will help make work better, but this post was a good reminder for me to get LOTS of feedback before pulling the trigger on any changes. Thanks, Tess.

  22. Reine

    Hello Tess,

    Thank you for your comment back. I am absolutely sure you are right that, ". . . the fact one is sensitive to attacks seems to bring on even more criticism. The bullies love the fact they drew blood, and it makes them bully harder." I used to try to avoid that by behaving as if I hadn't noticed. It sometimes helped, but it worsened as the stakes got higher.

    In school, from nursery to doctoral program, I was thought of as "not very bright" by my classmates. Over the years I've come up with all sorts of reasoning for this. Probably most were misattributions. As I started to say above the worst of it came when the stakes were highest. I had thought that people stopped seeing me as "not very bright" in college. When I entered graduate school it slapped me down again pretty hard, but the worst was when I started my doctoral program. I was given the entering award for doctoral student with "outstanding promise as educator and school leader." It came with free tuition and extra money for additional expenses of my choosing and required nothing in return. All I had to do was be there. Its not an award you apply for, and I was honestly shocked by this. Apparently a lot of my fellow students were, too. I was hounded without mercy.

    Students lied about my behavior to one another, the professors, the deans — too painful to even state what some of the reports were. I had no idea it could get worse. But after the first exam grades came out, and I'd placed higher than the worst of my detractors, they complained that I was cheating. Their reasoning was that — whew — I never studied. I didn't take notes. I never was seen reading a book. And since I wasn't very smart, I must be cheating.

    Even the dean and program heads knew that this was not evidence of cheating. So the group regrouped, and my identity was attacked. I'll leave it there, because this part involves my "multicultural" family and background in ways that I am unwilling to deal with here. But I will say that I discovered this unhappy business when one of the students confronted me after her most vicious complaint to the dean. I'd just defended myself from the almost indefensible. After we'd left the building she looked at me and said, "How does a person like you even get into Harvard in the first place?"

    There were good people who helped me through that crisis. It was contained to its miserable little place in the university. As I will never be the same, I will also never give up. And talking about the pain of it somehow takes away the sting of their power to destroy. While I feel and know that you are right about, ". . . the fact one is sensitive to attacks seems to bring on even more criticism. The bullies love the fact they drew blood, and it makes them bully harder," it is the one way I have of defending my self. I care, and I have nothing to lose. I have the truth, and they do not.

  23. Jenni

    There is a really good book written by a tech guru, Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget, in which he theorizes "that unfettered–and anonymous–ability to comment results in cynical mob behavior, the shouting-down of reasoned argument, and the devaluation of individual accomplishment." I do think there is something to this. The internet is changing behaviors and human interactions.

    Reine, what a terrible experience. I'm sorry people have been so cruel. So true about bullies, whether in person or online. But whereas in person, confronting them may make them back down, online it may make them nastier – maybe they feel they have something more to prove.

    I try to ignore a lot of negative comments whether on Amazon or Youtube or anything else. I set my settings so that the negative ones don't even appear on Youtube – they just get too nasty. If I like something and there's a thumb's up button, I use it, and if I really like someone's novel, I'll comment. If I don't, I usually ignore it. I try to frequent forums, like this one, where the comments are supportive, intelligent, and thoughtful and stay away from the ones where they are not.

  24. Neuf

    I think it's one thing to have an opinion about someone and/or their work, but it's another when it becomes hurtful and personal. The Internet provides an anonymous way of someone to post hate speech while hiding behind a made up screen name. It's just a cowardly way to say something and speaks volumes of their character.

    I also think there is a common misconception about celebrities and that they get what they deserve. And I mean that in a sense that the paparazzi think they have every right to chase people down and invade their privacy just because they're in the public eye and it's part of their "job." People tend to forget that even though celebs live a different, and often more lavish lifestyle, that doesn't mean they're not human and don't deserve respect. And the same goes for people trashing them or their work. I think people think it's okay to be a critic and that it comes with the territory. Criticism is one thing and hate is another.

    I'm definitely not saying that everyone has to love everything a celeb says or does, but I think people should follow the golden rule handed down over the years: if you can't say anything nice don't say anything at all. It only takes one negative comment to start a snowball effect and honestly life is too short for that sh**.

  25. Pari Noskin

    Actually, Tess, I got royally burned by lit.fic. writers when I was first published. That's why I was so amazed when I met people in the mystery community.

  26. PD Martin

    Late to the party, as usual – but I'm just logging on here in Oz! Anyway, great discussion about reviews. Of course it's easy to logically say everyone has different tastes but I agree with the above – bad reviews can still hurt. Maybe we should try and think of novels like food. Most people like chocolate (best sellers) but not everyone likes apples. It doesn't make the apples less appealing to those people who love them (5* reviews) but some people just don't like apples and will only give them one star.

    Of course, the other thing that's hard with reviews is that you can't respond to them. Well, I do remember a thread of a self-published author responding to a bad online review but that didn't go so well for her.

    Phillipa

  27. JT Ellison

    *I'm worried about the state of the world. When cruelty, and being oh so clever at the expense of an other becomes the norm, life simply isn't fun.* lil Glcukstern

    Oh, isn't that the crux of it all?

    I have an extremely thick skin. Critical reviews sting, of course, how could they not? But criticism can be healthy, even helpful. It's the ones who just want to make it clear that they are smarter and better than you that make my blood boil. They are cruel, and I feel sorry for them, because they are probably nasty unhappy people in real life.

    Really fabulous post today, Tess. Always a good reminder for people, on both sides of the fence!

  28. Sylvia

    We (readers) are simply assholes at times. I figure if someone doesn't like something about me, then they have to own that problem. I've enough of my own.

    Thick skin is a tough one, but thank you writers for all the writing you do.

  29. Julia

    Great post, Tess. No matter how good comments are received, it's those negative criticisms that become deeply embedded in our psyche. The Internet has made it easier for some folks to make hurtful comments without taking full ownership. In general the adage, "if you can't say anything good, then don't say anything," should apply.

  30. Alexx

    This was an awesome and needed post! Being the target on Facebook yesterday because of a picture I posted this really struck a chord. I simply deleted the person from my list and will continue on with my day and life. Hating gets us nowhere and yes it can hurt. I can only strive to be the best writer I can be, I love all authors because I want to be like them. I do not envy them I know how much they don't make. Confronting the Haters sometimes just makes it worse. Let them go their way and I will go mine. Thank you!

    Alexx

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