The Howettgate Effect

These last few days, a viral delight has swept the internet: self-published author Jacqueline Howett whipping up a petulant storm in the Comments section of a blog which gave her novel a fairly positive review.

It starts out as a lot of jaw-drop fun, in an oh-my-God, how-not-to-deal-with-criticism kind of way.  Later comments in the 307-item thread, from countless folk desperate to show how much more professional than Howett they are, become mean-spirited and dull, but that initial, escalating tornado is pretty essential reading and I'm still chuckling at much of it.  (Particularly the second of Howett's two "Fuck off!"s, which proves she's listening to none of the rather reasonable advice being given to her by shocked folk.)

Upon linking to Howettgate on my Facebook page, however, I became aware that 'Howettgate' has shone a bright light on the rather raw, grey area of (a) how writers should feel about criticism of their work and (b) whether they should ever respond - particularly in a public forum.

For my money, direct responses to criticism - whether public or otherwise - pointless and reek of unprofessionalism.  If someone doesn't like an aspect, or even all, of your work, then it's their subjective opinion and you'll be unlikely to change their mind.  Certainly, if someone has spent money on your work, they're entitled to say pretty much whatever they like about it.  I've seen both good and bad reviews of my own work, and am perfectly happy to let the warm rush of the good wash over the undeniable momentary disappointment of the bad.  If there was to be a damning, widespread consensus, this naturally wouldn't be pleasant, but you'd be foolish to rail against it, as that consensus would clearly be sending you a message...

Ultimately, I find it difficult to take criticism personally because it usually comes from such a personal perspective.  The critic's tastes simply don't chime with what you've created.  If the pair of you got talking about films or food, you'd probably disagree on those too.  So where's the hurt?  I certainly don't feel it.  The most I ever feel is a very mild irritation when net-critics appear to be frustrated writers (you can always tell those by the way they litter their assessments with technical writing terms, as if to not-so-subliminally convince the reader that they know the game and could do this better).

While comedy is surely one of the hardest and most stressful things to write, I also believe it to be a field where you'd be truly mad to take criticism personally.  Humour is so blatantly subjective that you can hardly hold it against the viewer if your work doesn't tickle their mirth-glands.  

It takes strength to absorb, ignore or cherry-pick the useful parts of criticism, then get on with your work with a quiet confidence, coupled with a never-ending desire to improve.  For me, this cherry-picking approach works best.  The idea of a writer 'taking' criticism imbues the critic with undue power - as if every negative missile automatically finds its target and damages us, unless we either respond or erect a tough barrier.  Instead, I like to think of criticism as existing in a kind of 'critical limbo', from which we can reject or accept whichever positive/negative nuggets we choose.  A criticism buffet, if you will.  (What's that, you say?  You won't?  Fuck off!  Ho ho.)

Of course, if someone makes an untrue personal accusation, then this is clearly different to offering their opinion of your work.  Even then, these kind of snide hecklers don't exactly present themselves in the best light and in responding you may well give them the attention they crave.  Probably best, nine times out of 10, to forget about them and get on with your work.  

Writers definitely face a wobbly tightrope.  Topple off one side and we become leaves in the wind, overly swayed by the opinions of every Tom, Dick and Harriet.  Topple off the other and we become Jacqueline Howett, circa March 2011.

Surely, the answer is to ensure we're happy with our work.  If that's the case, then we shouldn't need to waste energy and radiate insecurity by defending it.  And, frankly, if we're working hard enough, we shouldn't have time.

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Angry of Orpington said...

Fuck off!

Oli Lewington said...

Totally agree that responding to criticism in the way Jacqueline did (and especially so publicly) is a terrible thing to do. Petulance abounds.

Having said which, I don't always think responding to criticism is a bad idea. For example, she makes a good point that she'd reformatted the book, so a simple "I'm sorry the first version pulled you out of the story, but now we've cleaned it up, I hope your readers will get much more out of the story" may have done her some good.

In general, though, criticism is hard to take, especially when you're being damned with faint praise as I think that review does.

But ho hum, that's the life of a writer, I guess!

HowettsSpleen said...

No you fuck off! Actually, why don't you all fuck off!

Adaddinsane said...

Well said, sir.

(And I'm not referring to these repeated f-offs which are just sooooo unprofessional, like what I'm not.)

Damian Trasler said...

Yes, criticsm we don't agree with is always going to be hard to take, and I can't help feeling that anything that tells me I've got to change my original words is criticism I don't agree with. Ms Howett was bang on to say what she thought - the formatting had been corrected, but then dozens of people were pointing out serious faults with the grammar and clarity of her phrasing. They used examples. That was her cue to back down graciously, but she didn't take it. If she's still sitting in her ivory tower, bitching about those morons who can't tell good writing when it's right in front of them, then I have no sympathy. But what I worry about is her sitting at her table, rereading the thread and going "Oh my God! They were right! Why didn't I read, consider, and sleep on it before replying?".

Maybe this is why Salinger is supposed to have written all his manuscripts after "Catcher in the rye" and just dumped them in a safety deposit box....

cheapskate said...

Let me start by saying that I thought the MOST of the posts by the 'author' and other posters were hysterical, the f*ck offs had me laughing like a drain (DO drains laugh?).....BUT......on the whole she behaved appallingly.
Not wishing to sound cynical, but isn't society on the whole behaving badly? We all feel completely within our right these days to say whatever we think to whom ever we chose.
I'm not that old, but I do remember a time when it just wasn't that way, we had manners and reservations. The internet, a dear friend to us all, has a lot to answer for as does the text message. The anonymity these mediums offer brings cowardice along with ignorance.
It is ignorant,for example, to assume that just because you can't be identified you can have the cavalier attitude that the 'c' list celebs carry as the new accessory - the whole 'well, this is just me innit, you don't like me then...whatever!' These people can 'afford' to be rude because that is all they have. In a vain attempt to become famous with no actual talent they resort to attitude that you wouldn't tolerate in a face to face situation.
I'm as much to blame, I'm on fb and twitter etc.
The worst of this is that probably we have turned this second-rate writer, I say that from just reading the excerpts to be fair - which were badly written - into a world-wide phenomenon.
Who wins??? She does. She'll be on every daytime chat show from Chester to Chattanooga and back again, all expenses paid.
Enjoy the ride - while it lasts. The hone your writing skills!

Paul Smith said...

I tend to leave personal criticism aside - I won't pretend it doesn't hurt because my writing is usually very personal.

I'll usually reply or highlight a criticism if it's a subjective opinion presented as fact, largely because that has the potential to cause damage. That, and I like to argue.

I also find critical reviews are an excellent way to highlight my work. My first book received nearly-all positive reviews on Amazon, but you can't go shouting about those too much for fear of looking like some outlandish ego.

Therefore, I'll quote the bad reviews to occasionally promote my book on Twitter, i.e.:

"This book was so rotten, I think it's given me cancer:"

Self-depreciating for effect is a strength, and one that people warm to.

Stephen Gallagher said...

I tend to regard criticism as a dialogue between critic and reader. I can eavesdrop if I want to, but I'm risking what anyone risks if they listen in to someone else's conversation hoping to hear something good about themselves. Mostly I just stay out of it.

Though some critics seem to think their job is to advise or admonish the creator. Which is dead easy if you only show up after the work's all finished.

Deborah-Ann Brown said...

Hi Jason,

A very good blog and interesting read. I thank you for it.
I think one of the fundamental points ‘we’ all forget is that writing is a human activity. As such, we make human mistakes; we learn from those mistakes and grow from our experiences. Yes, it can be very difficult to accept that we are human, especially when our humanity is mostly the reason for ‘failure’. However, in my humble opinion the only failure in life is the failure to try. Criticism, both good and bad, is what we learn from. To my mind it is the most useful learning tool we have.