If you stick your head above the parapet, someone will take a shot at it. This is true and always will be. It doesn't matter who you are or what you're doing, or how well you're doing it, if enough people see it some of them will hate it. It's just how people are.
But at the same time, all artists need critical feedback. Without it, you cannot grow. And sometimes, even the meanest criticism is actually useful. It pays to be able to distinguish between the criticism to ignore, and the criticism to take on board. Here's how I do it:
- Disregard the motives of the critic. Assholes are still sometimes right. You may take their relevant experience level into account, but don't put much weight on it.
- Segment the critics into ‘my target audience'/'not my target audience'.
- Disregard all in the ‘not my target audience' segment. Does Iron Maiden care that the Opera critic for the NYT doesn't like them? (I made that up– they may be a huge metal fan, but you get the idea).
- Sift the remaining criticism for truth. If it's true, it doesn't matter who says it. Learn and grow. If it's not true, then disregard it. How it makes you feel is irrelevant, but scared is usually a good indication that there's some truth there.
- Never, ever, under any circumstances, ever, respond to public negative criticism directly, unless you are at fault and should apologise. Then apologise. Criticism given in private (e.g. in an email) can be responded to, but never immediately. Let it settle for a while first.
- See rule 5. It bears repeating.
What is so hard about this has been neatly captured by this cartoon from The Oatmeal :The Oatmeal nails it. Again. Click on the image to see the whole cartoon in context.
We are social animals. When somebody is vile about you, even when you know their opinion is unfounded, it feels horrible. Even kindly meant constructive useful criticism is painful. But then so is doing the last critical rep when exercising. Or getting hit with a sword when you should have parried. In short, growth hurts, and you better just suck it up.
Case Study one: Book reviews
On average, my books get great reviews on Amazon. Mostly 4 and 5 stars. But every now and then, somebody gives me one or two star review, and it feels liking getting kicked in the stomach (I've been kicked many times, and am being perfectly literal here). I always pay attention to those, because that's where the growth lies. Here's one example:
My most recent Longsword book, Advanced Longsword, has 12 reviews on Amazon.com, eleven 5 star, one 4 star (if you've read it, do me a favour and review it!). But over on Amazon.co.uk, it's got two five star reviews, and one ONE STAR review, with this text: “It is a fine book with excellent illustrations, BUT!!! The author uses Italien expression which he has not defined. Instead he refers to another book. Which makes the present book useless.”
Now that to me is a marketing problem. I've sold a book to the wrong person. I know the book is good because the target audience love it (and even this critic says it's a fine book). I did not reply to the review directly, but I responded to it by changing the blurb to make it clearer that you need to read the previous volume first (though it was pretty damn clear already). I will also add a link in the book where readers can get a downloadable glossary if they want one. As it happens, two of my fans responded directly to the reviewer telling him he was supposed to read the previous book first.
The lesson there is be really careful about how you advertise your work.
Case Study two: Online mockery
This video, showing demonstrations of perfectly documentable techniques from Il Fior di Battaglia, got selected for abuse by the anonymous trolls who run a channel that exists only to mock martial artists (think about that for a second).
Many of my fans jumped up and down and posted comments and suchlike in my defence, which was heartening, and I appreciate it. But there was no way that they were going to dissuade the armchair warriors of the internet from ridiculing the video. That's ok. That's what trolls do, and trolls are a regrettable but apparently ineradicable part of the internet's ecosystem. A bit like mosquitos, but their bite is never fatal while mosquitos can actually kill you. It might be possible to educate some of them, but I wouldn't bet on it: even if they are generally sensible people, the mindset they are in when piling on a troll thread is not conducive to learning things. When a friend informed me I had been singled out, I responded to him (not on the troll page) like so:
Honestly chaps, it's not worth reacting to. Those with half a brain or more can see the difference between a set drill for beginners, and “self defence”. Those that can't are just too dumb to bother with. And there's no such thing as bad publicity, for a writer, at least. Thanks for the heads up though.
I try to practise what I preach. A few weeks ago, I preached this: To share or not to share? 3 simple rules for knowing what to do which is why I haven't linked to the perpetrator's website here. But I took a look at the criticism, to see if there was anything valuable there. If the critics are right about this video, then the following things must be true:
- Fiore dei Liberi was not a great martial artist, he was full of shit. His book is rubbish. (One dingbat actually says so!!)
- Slow technical training has no place in martial arts training.
- You can't grab a sharp blade without getting cut.
I know from research and experience that the first is wrong, and I know from experience that the second and third are wrong too. The criticism in this case can be safely disregarded. As to the motives of the trolls (which are not relevant, but one can't help wondering), I can only guess that they think they are helping to keep martial arts ‘real' and ‘unsullied', by ridiculing anything they think is not properly ‘street'. And to be sure, some of the videos they post are ridiculous. As to whether mine are? I leave you to judge.
Make Good (Martial) Art:
In martial arts, any and every conflict situation is either combat, or training. If there is no direct, real, existential threat, then it must, by definition, be training. And in both cases above, however those situations may have made me feel (neither were pleasant), there is no actual threat. So there is no need to defend myself or others. (If the trolls or critics were posting my home address and incitements to violence, then it would be very different; that's a police matter. But this is just mockery and can be ignored). It is therefore not combat; it must be a training scenario, in which the key thing is to identify what the situation can teach you. In this case, I think it's probably just practice at not reacting to ridicule, nor descending to the level of the opponent. And as a martial arts teacher, it is of course also a teaching opportunity, hence this post.
Martial arts training is all about responding optimally, and not reacting in exactly the way the enemy wants you to. At the end of the day, it comes back to Neil Gaiman's advice, Make Good Art. I have a body of work that has benefitted thousands of people, and my work speaks for itself. What do these dingbats have, other than too much time on their hands? Nothing.
Combat veterans, police officers, security guards, in short, people who can spot martial arts bullshit because they have used their skills against genuinely non-compliant, sometimes murderous, opponents, come to my classes and tell me they love them. But some fool on the internet can't tell the difference between scenario training and technical practice? I should care exactly why? For me at least, making it onto the radar of this very popular martial arts mockery channel is a significant indicator of success!
Which is why I only sat down to write this post after I had finished my ‘make good art' work for the day. Because even though some people will hate it (if they ever see it), I know that the project I'm working on is good, and I know that my fans will love it.
Remember, no matter who you are or what you do, if your work gets around at all, someone somewhere will hate it. And if it's on the internet, they'll post shit about you there. It's worth reading the “Man in the Arena” section of Theodore Roosevelt's Citizenship in a Republic speech given at the Sorbonne in Paris on April 23, 1910.
It is not the critic who counts;
not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles,
or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,
whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood;
who strives valiantly; who errs,
who comes short again and again,
because there is no effort without error and shortcoming;
but who does actually strive to do the deeds;
who knows great enthusiasms,
the great devotions;
who spends himself in a worthy cause;
who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement,
and who at the worst,
if he fails,
at least fails while daring greatly,
so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.