Thursday, 6 January 2011

Toxic Readers

A friend started attending a new writing class back in September and over the holidays I asked how it was going.  It turned out she'd stopped going, along with most of the other students.  The problem was how the teacher gave feedback.  There was no alternative to her opinion.  The students had to do it her way or - well, there was no 'or'.  People who disagreed were promptly told they'd got no hope of getting published.  

This is complete nonsense.  One of the fabulous things about writing is that there are no absolutes. Stuff gets published that I think is poor writing, stuff I think is brilliant languishes on the slush pile.  I didn't find the Da Vinci Code to be a page-turner; millions agree with me, and millions disagree.  I've used the opening of Enduring Love in class as a brilliant example of suspense only for some students to find it boring.  

It's opinion!  It's taste!  Yes, there's informed opinion and informed taste, but that's no excuse for a teacher for insisting that their opinions and taste matter to the exclusion of anyone else's. And the same is true of any reader.  

I've been in situations where someone I've asked for feedback has given it, and then gone the extra mile in insisting on their opinion - it's easily done when one is passionate about writing and feels one 'knows' what the problem/solution is.   It's one of the jobs of a workshop leader to control and, if necessary, deflect a toxic reader but if the workshop leader is the toxic reader then you have a problem. 

If you're ever in a class or feedback group where you're exposed to a toxic reader, take a deep breath and keep quiet.  Don't argue - it will only entrench their opinion.  If you say as little as possible there's nothing for them to push against.  Keep telling yourself that it's your work and you can do whatever you want with it, that it's only one person's opinion.  And then get out of the situation as soon as you can.  Above all, don't take what one person says to heart, however published that person may be.  


badas2010 said...

Once again, couldn't agree more.
I had that exact same experience, and my happiest day was when I left the group. I felt I could breathe again.
Like most people I'm desperate for feedback, but when it's harsh and brooks no argument, walk away and hold your head up.

Sarah Duncan said...

I'm really pleased to hear you left the negative situation. It's the only solution if there's a toxic reader (or two!) in the group. It's the 'there is no alternative to my view" attitude that's so damaging.

Alison Morton said...

I had this experience recently.

I was new to the writing group, so feeling my way. I duly sent in my 1500 words for prior circulation. At the meeting one man was almost hopping up and down, eager to make his comment. The leader invited him to go first.

Now, I'm a newbie writer, and have been learning all the time, not least from your blog! I have been polishing my WIP, post-professional appraisal. It's not Hemingway, but other feedback had suggested it was not bad.

The man jumped up and his first words were 'I hated it.'Next remark,'It's not real writing, it's sloppy romance. My wife wouldn't read it and I'd take it away from her if I saw her with it.'

Deep intake of breath. He ignored the mystery/thriller elements and totally focused on the hero/heroine meeting (which was not 'soppy'). He's a published author of military history novels. The other group members were somewhat taken aback, but rallied round to give constructive criticism, quite a bit of which I took on board.

So, the upshot is: listen to what they say, but consider where they are coming from, what their area of interest/genre is and what the state of their ego is...

Sarah Duncan said...

Good for you to be able to take the step back and see his feedback told you more about him than it did about your writing.

Also good to hear the rest of the group didn't let him take over. The millions of books out there are proof that everybody likes different things and why not?