That was the question writing coach and consultant Martha Alderson was asked, specifically about some negative reviews she had received on one of her writing books. Martha answered that question in the affirmative:
[The writer] wanted to know if I felt the negative reviews on Amazon for The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master , especially the ones that are so personal, are bullying. Yes, I can now say, yes, I felt bullied. Her question led me to understand how much criticism and bullying and judgment and punishment I’ve received for being different my entire life — as likely you also have to one degree or another.
Problem: The negative reviews worked. Rather than believe the vast majority of reviews which are positive in warm and incredible ways, what I surrendered my own beliefs and pulled back from writing about so much that brings me joy — like the Universal Story, the Writer’s Way, the journey all of us share. I allowed the antagonists to fell me.
What were some of the “personal” attacks the “antagonists” employed in their bullying? Here’s some excerpts from the five 0ne-star reviews the book has received:
txrey: This was one of the most disappointing purchases I have made. This is not a regular book on writing but one based on new age spirituality. Part way through the first chapter, I realized I had made a bad purchase. This is not what I thought I was buying.
Brian: I’ve read a lot of books on writing over the years. Some good, some bad…and then there’s “The Plot Whisperer”. Wow. This is such crap I can’t believe it got published. I was looking for practical advice on plotting, some help in getting past some rough spots, and instead I get a bunch of new age channeling of energy. From page 3…”This is a book about plotting that also functions as a spiritual and emotional guide to writing.” What I was looking for was a practical guide to recognizing and correcting plot pitfalls, not a lot of nonsense about writing “lifting you to a higher truth.”, or muses that appear as snippets of a dream and magically connect you to the “universal story.” Please. If you’re looking for practical advice in plotting out your story, about where to foreshadow or where to plant hooks, keep looking. This ain’t it.
G. “G”: The Plot Whisperer has very little information on writing. It is a feel good book, crammed with cheesy mantras meant to uplift you. This book should be listed under the “new Age” category, as it is new age, if nothing else. You’ll read the phrase “universal Story” over and over again. We are all linked through our “universal Stories.” Yes, that’s right people, new age filler.
C.C. Martin: After considerable searching, I was able to come up with only two titles of allegedly “prize-winning” historical fiction books written by Alderson: Parallel Lives and Spirits of War, but try to buy one or find a review! They certainly are not available on Amazon, and Google offers only a passing reference to their very existence. Apparently Alderson is one of that swarm of charlatans who has discovered it’s more profitable to write about writing than actually to write!
Are these reviews fair? I can’t say. I haven’t read the book. What I can say from perusing them, though, is that they don’t seem like bullying to me.
They seem like the standard “negative reviews” you’d find on Amazon.
Mind you, I think the ascription of bullying is far too prevalent in our culture as it is. Not only is the definition blurry, it’s potentially quite subjective. The person who HAS been bullied could interpret something rather innocuous to me as bullying to them. So I must be cautious about labeling something NOT bullying without knowing the inner-workings of someone’s psyche, both the recipient and deliverer of said bullying. That said, I fear that crying “bully” has become the new “racist.” It’s a convenient ad hominem used to silence and stigmatize critics, or to simply skirt the recipient’s responsibility to not respond to morons in like fashion.
Some particulars about this case that I find interesting:
The author received 85 five-star reviews for that particular book… as opposed to the 5 one-star reviews. The reviews are overwhelmingly positive. Nevertheless, the small number of negative reviews seem to have had a disproportionately detrimental effect on the author, even to the point that she considered stopping writing.
Also, one of the main charges against this book is the author’s incorporation of New Age beliefs. As one reviewer said, “This book should be listed under the ‘New Age’ category.” If that’s the case, it would seem to be a legitimate gripe. Indeed, some reviewers seemed to like the book precisely for this reason, that it “translates Jung and Campbell into everyday English” and that it tackled “the biggest roadblock to success–the writer’s psyche.”
From my perspective, the most “personal” of the reviews is the one from C. C. Martin who suggests that Alderson is “one of that swarm of charlatans who has discovered it’s more profitable to write about writing than actually to write!” No doubt, this is a serious charge. But bullying?
Interestingly, in her post, Alderson seems to indicate that it is the ridicule of her ideas that she finds most harsh. She concludes:
I now appreciate the gift in the negative reviews that came so fast and the damage so swift and early. For me to do what I love, I’ve got to hold my own power or be silenced by and lose to those who don’t agree with me and ridicule my ideas. (emphasis mine)
So was Alderson really being bullied? Were these negative reviews really a form of bullying?
However you answer that, I think there’s some valuable lessons we writers can learn from things like this.
1.) We musn’t get addicted to five-star reviews. It was Charles Spurgeon who encouraged ministers to be even-keeled regarding praise and critique. “When praised, don’t crow; when criticized, don’t croak.” Frankly, I would gladly tolerate 5 one-star reviews for 85 five-star reviews. The fact that we writers often allow a disproportionately small number of negative reviews to so affect us says a lot about our addiction to praise.
2.) There’s a big difference between being an “antagonist” and simply giving an honest review. It is quite possible to give a negative review and not be antagonistic. Oscar Wilde said, “True friends stab you in the front.” Being up front and honest about someone’s work, even if that honesty hurts the author, is an important part of growing as a writer and critic. We musn’t automatically assume that negative reviews are a sign of animosity and enmity. In reality, a critical reviewer could prove be an author’s best friend.
3.) Writers need thick skin. It’s boringly cliched, I know. But I’ve always loved that saying, “If you want to avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” The moment you put yourself and your product out there, someone will hammer it. The only way to avoid the inevitable critique: Don’t publish anything. Other than that, thick skin is a requirement.
4.) Religious beliefs will always raise hackles. I say this as a Christian writer whose had his religious themes critiqued — on both sides. Like THIS REVIEW of my novel The Telling on Goodreads in which the author writes
I actually had to double check the back cover: this book is pitched as Christian fiction, but to my mind there is nothing Christian about it. It uses Judeo-Christian angelology as a backdrop, but it could just as easily be considered New Age.
Whether New Age or Christian, religious idea will always raise hackles. If we’re going to incorporate religious content in our stuff we must be prepared for negative feedback, from one side or the other
So can negative reviews be a form of bullying? They probably can. I’m sure there’s incidents where reviewers have ganged up on an author unfairly with the intent to damage their career or disparage their reputation. Was the incident above a good example of such bullying? I don’t think so. Not by a long shot.
In fact, I think it serves better as an example of what authors should NOT do in response to negative reviews.