Wednesday, December 18, 2013

How I Handle a Negative Review

Sometime around late-2001, after I had released my first solo work "One Night In Purgatory," I solicited feedback through the bulletin board I had set up in the book's website. One day, someone posted scathing words on the board. I fail to remember the entire message, but the word that stood out was "fudgepacker."

So I posted a calm reply, thanking him (I had assumed it was a guy) for his comment, and asked him what he thought the book needed for it to be better.

He responded with more verbal grenades, but didn't really answer the question. A clear troll. So I told him that since I was new to the whole comics writing thing, I would be thrilled to know which parts of the book he didn't like. After all, I was just learning, and maybe he could help me.

His answer: he hadn't read the book.

I continued with the same calm tone, asking him stuff about his favorite books and such. He recommended that I read "Love and Rockets" and books from Fantagraphics. The back-and-forth we had concluded in amicable tones. He had settled down, and I thanked him for his feedback.

Other people might have reacted to his "haven't read the book" statement with a vitriolic bitchslap to the Nth level of Gehenna, but I wasn't in the position to do so since, again, I wanted to get as much feedback as I could. Maybe it was my marketing background that trained me to solicit feedback however that feedback was packaged. Or maybe it's just my nature to seek understanding.

Whatever the case, feedback has always been important to me. There are artists who say that negative feedback should be ignored, but I have to qualify that. I ignore negative feedback if it doesn't give me something to consider or assess. That for every five 'it's crap' statements, there might be one morsel of value. To me, there is such a thing as valuable negative feedback.

There are two things I bear in mind when it comes to reviews. One is who my audience is and what they expect from me. The second is who I am as an artist, and what my intentions when it comes to my output. As much as possible, I'd like these two to co-exist harmoniously, wherein my work not only meets their expectations, but also allows me to explore and grow. John Grisham comes to mind--he has been known to deliver great legal fiction, but has still found success with other kinds of stories.

But then there's the Anne Rice case. Her vampire novels have been the toast of dramatic horror for many years, but she decided to move on to write a novel about Jesus. I'm not sure how that novel fared, but I can guess that vampire-loving readers weren't too enthused.

So when I read a review, I try to see where the two meet and where they collide. In the case of negative reviews, I try to see where the reviewer is coming from and see how aligned it is with my artistic intent. If I get more than one review, I try to consolidate them into one composite review, and make an evaluation. If the reviewer uses colorful language, I try to get to the essence of the message. If the review is negative but doesn't offer an explanation, I ignore it, not because I don't want to hear it, but because there's nothing in it that can give me insight about what I've done or failed to do.

I also realize that valuable negative reviews feed my notions about the differences in the way people think. When writing characters, we know we have to differentiate them, down to the way they view the world. What's right for one person may be questionable to another. By exposing myself to different perspectives and how these perspectives are expressed, the way I write character dynamics can improve.

Do I get hurt with negative reviews? In varying degrees, yes. I remember a time when I literally cried because of the negative reviews I'd gotten as an actor, but I was in my mid-20s, highly untrained and had not experienced such reactions before. After that production, I realized that the reviews were right, that I was inexperienced, that I lacked conviction, that I, as one reviewer put it, "didn't know what I was saying." They were critiquing my performance, not my character.

But getting past the hurt became easier once I realized why reviews existed. It's about the work, and you trust that it will always be about the work. (Of course, reviews that also attack character are another thing altogether.) And it also helps, I think, that I really don't think too highly about my art. I try to improve every step of the way, attempt to top whatever I've done in the past, and pursue some level of mastery, but I also know that the judge of excellence is not me. I will always strive to improve my craft, but the reality is that I am where I am because there are people, friends and strangers, who truly believe I should be there.

It's these people who I want to please, and I know I can do so without compromising my artistic intent. Because if I try to please everybody, I end up not pleasing anybody at all.

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