I’ve been fascinated by all the talk about what happened at RWA this year. So many people with so many strong feelings about so many things. Whenever you get a big group of writers (almost always synonymous with thinkers…almost) together, there are bound to be many of these. While I followed the discussion on diversity in romance pretty closely, the thing that stood out to me the most were all the strong feelings expressed about Kate Breslin’s double RITA nominated debut book For Such A Time. Whether writers and reviewers were expressing their outrage that a romance between a Nazi officer and a Jewish woman was nominated twice for one of the industry’s top honors (and many, many other prestigious awards besides the RITA), or arguing for more religions beside Christianity to be represented in the inspirational category of the RITA, it was clear people felt very strongly about this book, and by extension, this author and her publisher.
I don’t want to get into the specifics of any of that. I can debate the advisability of her hero and heroine choices, the agency of the heroine, the probability of it all happening with the best of them. I can say whether or not I feel that the fact that there’s a Christian slant to the story of a Jewish woman is displacing her identity or whether it’s authentic all day. But my current list of things to get all up in arms about (and my timeline) are full of too many other atrocities to give this the sensitivity and attention it would require, and it has next to nothing to do with writing. The reason I brought up the whole debate in the first place is to talk about something that all writers can relate to: reception.
When I read some of the reviews, letters to RWA and criticism of For Such A Time, my first thought was for Kate Breslin. I looked up her website and Facebook to see how she was coping with this onslaught of negative reviews and criticisms of a book she spent years trying to write. I can’t imagine my debut being nominated for every prestigious award in inspirational romance. Can you imagine the joy, the elation? Then to be hit with such severe backlash from your peers in the industry. Wow.
So I want to talk about that thing that most of us as writers usually don’t talk about. While we are happy to prognosticate and speculate on every other part of the publication process that we have no control over, the most I hear about reception is coping strategies. I see retweets of the best reviews from the most prestigious reviewers. One of the indie groups I am in on Facebook has members who share their funniest one star Amazon reviews. But what do you do when your industry is bestowing honors on you but your peers are calling for your book to be shunned?
I’ve always thought of romance writers as this warm and open community, but many others are coming out and sharing how it hasn’t been so welcoming of them (see: diversity in romance discussion referenced above). While some are calling for more inclusion, others are calling for certain kinds of stories to snubbed. The problem with any talk of inclusion, especially forcible inclusion, tries to neglect the fact that this is just as much coercion as exclusion. Mandating that a certain number of diverse books be included on lists of books that were judged and voted on by a large number of individuals, for example, may force other deserving books off the list to maintain the quota. Championing the publication of diverse books is a horse of a different color. If there are readers there should be books But I’m getting off track. Right. Reception.
As a writer with a book under consideration with an editor, I’m now having nightmares about what the possible reception could be if the book made it to print. I tackle an issue I have no personal experience with and try to portray it well, but I don’t know how actual women dealing with it will receive the book. In another story, the hero is responsible for the death of someone related to the heroine. I wrestled back and forth with having it turn out to be someone else’s fault or somehow absolving him of guilt to make it easier for a reader to accept him and them as a couple, but that wasn’t true to the story. I imagine that Ms. Breslin may have struggled with the proper context and framework for her story as well. As a writer, I understand that you have to be true to the story and write without as much thought to the reception.
So how do you balance both of these considerations? How do you deal with backlash or poor reception, particularly from writing peers/readers you admire? How should we critique work we find offensive (or should we critique it at all?)