Recently, a few negative things have happened to me: a project that I’ve been hoping would come to fruition for about a year now has, after much see-sawing, been finally axed due to negative references; I’ve made an error with some editing work and been forced to redo it. But I’m not here to complain, because dealing with negativity, adverse circumstances and bad reviews is something that is going to happen. How you deal with those knock-backs, how you view them, is the point of this post.
Everyone is different, obviously, and emotional reactions are completely valid: I’m not here to condemn you for feeling sad, or angry, because I understand (despite rumours to the contrary, I have feelings too). Neither am I here to tell you what to do, because only you can decide that. My purpose today is simply to reflect on cultural and personal responses to negativity, in the hope that I can, perhaps, provide a useful response to it.
I can’t comment specifically on the reviews we got back for the project I mentioned above, because as a minor member of the team I was not party to them. But I would like to comment on the issue in general. I’ve noticed a culture, of late, in the critical SF&F community, and in academia more broadly, which treats unfavourable responses and reviews as a deadly sin, particularly if they come from a privileged group within those communities. I’m not entirely sure of the reasons for this. Is it because of our modern, fiercely protective, almost coddling, attitude towards our own precious psyche, and a tendency to take everything personally? Is it a reaction to historically institutional sex-gender-race-orientation-ablist prejudices? I’ll have to investigate further, I think, to really understand, but the one thing I do know is that it is a dangerous trend. I’m not arguing for privilege, far from it, nor am I saying that it is OK to be cruel, or to make judgements about someone’s work based upon the gender they choose to perform, their romantic choices, whether or not they have kids, the colour of their skin, the disabilities or illnesses they have, or any other lifestyle choice or inherent factor of anyone’s existence. To judge and comment based on prejudice is not fine, because it is the root of hatred and homogeneity in knowledge production: socially destructive, and murderous towards the broadening of the human experience that I think – I hope – most academics are at root trying to achieve.
But: adverse reactions to work, expressed clearly, with care, are absolutely fundamentally crucial to what we do. I can talk, I know – most of my life has been spent being patted on the head and told I’m brilliant, and it’s only in the last few years that I’ve encountered really critical comment for things I have done. Lots of people would love to have had that confidence boost as children, and I appreciate that I did. But being told I was brilliant all the time didn’t really help as much as people thought it did, because unless you yourself can see the flaws in your work, or the places in which it can be extended and improved, you can’t get any further. And sometimes you do need the eyes of another to see those holes. It is so important to be able to say “This can be done better”, “You have not considered ”, “Your argument is flawed because ” and, finally and most simply “I disagree, because ”. It is important because then you as a researcher can improve in the future, because considered argument, dissent and differing opinions is the way in which human knowledge develops.*
So, I have two final addresses to make,
To critics and reviewers: be considerate and constructive if you can, and if you violently and fundamentally disagree with someone, voice your arguments – but do so in a way which is not vitriolic, which is considered, reasoned, and well evidenced. There’s nothing wrong in being vehement in your opinions and expression: just do it right.
To those being reviewed or criticised: your emotional reactions are valid, but remember that this criticism is not about you**. It is about the work you have produced, and what it lacks, or doesn’t do as well as it could. Your job is not to wallow in despair over it, nor to stick pins into a Voodoo doll of your reviewer, but to respond in a manner which is constructive. Consider the arguments they make, whether you agree with them or not, and how you might, in the future, continue to produce work having considered and taken on board those arguments. I’m not saying you have to agree with them all: but you do have to, on first look, treat them all as having equal potential for validity.
Criticism is crucial, because it is argument, opportunity – both for the critic and the criticised. It is a consequence, reason, and driver, of our multifaceted, heterogeneous, remarkably unlikely world. If we give it up or deny it, we become dullards, working strictly to time and rule and ceasing to grow. We would live in 1984, We, Metropolis, but we would have lost their rebellious heroes.
The fire of dissent, which burns, or the tepid water of passive acceptance, which coddles? I’ll take the fire, and the scars it leaves, thank you: water eventually drowns, and in any case, I love to watch pictures dancing in the flames.
*Critical thought and dissent gave us the Copernican Revolution, Evolutionary Theory, Relativity. Yes, it also gave us Calvinist Predestination, Nazi Germany and Soviet Gulags, but these rather more unpleasant results do not mean the acts themselves should be banned.
**Unless it is, at which point you have a right to complain.