(originally published in August of 1997)
We asked author Patricia Gaffney, author of the Wyckerley trilogy and the upcoming Wild at Heart for her thoughts on reader criticism. Here is what she had to say:
Show me a writer who says she enjoys reader criticism, and I’ll show you somebody whose pants are on fire. Don’t believe her! We all hate it, no matter how “constructive” the criticism might be.
Which isn’t to say we don’t need or deserve it sometimes, and it isn’t to say that it’s not a reader’s perfect right to criticize–or praise, or do anything else she wants, including hurl our books against the wall . But let’s be honest about the effect of criticism on a writer’s pride and self-respect, not to mention her ego: it hurts.
I was asked to write this little piece on the subject because of my experience with some quite negative reader reaction to a book of mine, To Have & To Hold. In general it was well-received, but a few people had serious and strong reservations. I won’t say this came as a shock to me ; I was expecting it, in fact. But I still hated it. I couldn’t blame anyone for it, though, because in a way, I was asking for it. I’d chosen to tell a story about a very difficult hero . . . well, that’s putting it mildly. This guy drove some people crazy. He committed many un-heroic sins against the heroine for nearly the whole first half of the book, and for a few readers that was it — there could be no forgiving him for it. And no forgiving me for it, and no liking this book.
Okay, I told myself, move on. You win some, you lose some. You were pushing the envelope, you were expanding the bounds of the genre, blah blah; you can’t expect everybody to love every word you write, especially if you’re going to write heroes like Sebastian Verlaine. You got what you deserve, now turn the page.
Good advice, but just between us, I couldn’t stand it that everybody didn’t like this book! Why didn’t they? Was it my fault? Their fault? Just one of those things? I was glad when they invited me to “defend” myself on a few of the romance listservs, Genie and Compuserve and another one. It gave me an opportunity to explain what I’d been trying to do – set up a virtually unredeemable character and redeem him anyway . I loved talking directly with the readers, having a real dialogue with them about what the genre means to us, and how far a book can go and still be considered a romance. Everybody was polite, but nobody minced words. I could almost say that criticism like this is welcome, because it’s reasonable, intelligent, calm, not shrill, and very well-intended. Almost.
Ah, but the truth is, I really do want everybody to love every word I write.
Poor me. Since that’s not going to happen, isn’t it lucky that I’ve chosen to work in a genre whose readership is almost always tolerant and broadminded, friendly, funny, forgiving, and above all, loyal? I’d say so. Criticism is inevitable (not to mention frequently deserved, and yeah, okay, good for the soul), so I’m glad I get to endure it at the hands of good hearted people who kindly focus on the book and not on me. And who knows? Maybe someday I’ll toughen up, take it on the chin like a man.
So listen, I’ve got a new book coming out in mid-December called Wild at Heart, and I’d just like to say right here and now that the hero is nothing like Sebastian Verlaine. It’s about a ‘lost man,’ discovered in the Canadian wilderness and taken back to civilization to be studied by scientists and anthropologists. “Tarzan in Canada,” I call it, and it’s not like any other historical romance I’ve ever read. Certainly nothing like anything I’ve ever written. I absolutely adore this hero. I didn’t write him as an “antidote” to Sebastian, though–because to tell you the truth, in spite of the heat I took for To Have & To Hold on Sebastian’s behalf, I’m unrepentant. I loved him before and I love him still. And get this: it’s my secret but unabashed hope that, after every book I write, faithful romance readers say the same thing about me!