What happens when a writing critique strays from constructive criticism and becomes an attack on the writer and her writing? I invited historical novelist Bonnie Bracken to share her experience with her recent critique experience. If you’ve ever felt attacked by a beta reader or critique partner, you’ll want to read this.
When I decided to write a novel with Wallis Simpson as my leading lady, I knew my battle to seduce the senior female demographic would be sizeable. They grew up with Edward VIII as a handsome prince, touring the world for the sake of the monarchy’s popularity. He was the original celebrity, held up in the everyday girl’s mind to sell the fantasy: maybe someday he’ll pick me. The same thing happens today: single girls are secretly disappointed when they find out the latest heartthrob got a girlfriend and—gasp—it wasn’t them.
So when Edward picked a woman whose appearance was opposite to the angelic standard of beauty, the press didn’t have to work hard to make her unpopular. She was subjectively ugly with sharp features and dark hair, so half their work was already done. All they had to do was stoke the fire. They painted Wallis blacker than any other woman of the twentieth century. She was the original That Woman, and the nasty press about her was second only by the vicious attacks against Monica Lewinsky. (By the way Monica, my admiration for you is without limits; your recent interviews are the picture of bravery and strength. Brava.)
I knew this sentiment was out there. I knew it. But the level of vitriol and venom in these women’s reactions to my work shocked me to my core. It was as if Wallis personally banged their boyfriend and then with a toss of her hair walked out the door without so much as a good-bye. That heartless bitch.How much leeway does an author have in assigning thoughts, feelings, or traits to her characters, especially when writing #historical #fiction? Click To Tweet
Examples from the Critique
“You’re writing a book about Wallis Simpson? You can’t do that.”
“I still don’t understand how a man could be with someone who’s ugly and mean. It doesn’t make sense. There’s no way he’d be with her.”
“Trust me, I did a report on Wallis. She was anal retentive and was extremely fearful of people thinking she was a slut.”
When I heard that last one, I immediately thought, “Are you sure you don’t mean you don’t want people to perceive you as a slut?’ In all of my research (which includes reading half a dozen biographies and all the base documents they stem from: the FBI Files, documents in the London Archives and the German Foreign Policy Documents) I’ve never once read this sentiment. Not once. In fact, Wallis was the opposite, embracing her sexuality in the 1920s at a time before we really had a definition for the new modern women. So here we hit our first nerve of the day: The reader projecting their skeletons onto a character where those skeletons don’t otherwise exist.
I’ve practiced pitching this book on anyone with ears, so I started expecting the “Wallis was a witch” reaction from the sixty-plus demographic. Inside I would brace myself and say, “We’ve got another victim of Lord Beaverbrock’s press barrage on our hands.” I have won over some of these women once they read my book. In fact, I get most of them in the end, but it’s a fight. Mostly because their preconceived notions are so embedded and sealed with confirmation bias. It’s a hard shell to crack. But it’s crackable when presented with enough hard facts.
Killing the Messenger
However, this last weekend I took a severe, critical beating at my writers group when I presented a chapter where Wallis attends her divorce hearing to separate from Ernest Simpson. The critique comments started off with the same old slop: learned bias and not the words on the page. But this time something new came up.
“I’ve figured out the reason I don’t like her, she’s one dimensional.” This wasn’t prejudice; this was an attack on the writing. We’ve hit a different nerve, nerve number two. But when asked for specific examples, they couldn’t point to a single one. Then the truth came out: it’s not that she’s one dimensional, but that she’s mean.
So we were back to the bias. Okay, I could work with this. We were still on nerve number one.This wasn’t prejudice; this was an attack on the writing. Beta Readers on the Attack—When Critiques Get Personal. #bias #historical #fiction Click To Tweet
When asked for specific examples, the second complaint of “nastiness,” they pointed to witty inner and outer dialogue. And I wanted to scream (but didn’t), “If a man said that to you, you would be calling him strong and smart! This is the epitome of gender bias!” The men in the group took the opposite side, saying, “This kind of thing doesn’t bother me. I like a strong woman.” It was going downhill fast, ladies on one side and the men on the other. And inside I thought, “Maybe I’m walking a mile in Wallis’s shoes right now. With the men for and women against.” We’d officially hit nerve number three.
So then the conversation took a fourth turn that the “nastiness” was not only in Wallis’s speech but also in the way I described her perceptions. This time, the specific example pointed to the description of the judge presiding over her divorce hearing. A source biography claimed he had “heavy jowls” (and behaved like a rude jerk). So to describe him, I wrote, “A man of fifty unkind years appears with ruddy cheeks slipping down his face and into his heavy jowls.”
I had fallen in love with this description. In my mind it was unique and had movement. And the reaction was, “Only a mean person would say that.”
Whose Gender Stereotypes Are These, Anyway?
And even though it was my duty as the critiqued to remain quiet, I couldn’t. “That’s what the man looked like!” I burst out.
For the last three days I’ve spent way too much time in my head about this, and I realized what really got under my skin was the personal attack. After all, I, Bonnie Bracken, wrote these lines, so *I* must be bitchy because I think these kinds of things all the time. I observe. I judge. It’s human nature. It’s not that I say them aloud, but here’s the rub: if we can’t be honest in the head of a character in a narrative, then when can we be honest? And why must every single thought in a woman’s head be kind in order for her to be a good person? That’s an unrealistic gender stereotype. Besides, are men expected to do that? No. No, they are not.It was every writer's worst fear come true: my idea is garbage, the writing is hopeless, and I should give up. Beta Readers on the Attack: When Critiques Get Personal #bias #historical #fiction Click To Tweet
I could spend another page spiraling, but I’ll rein it in. I’ll park that train of thought with this: honesty does not go hand in hand with a mean spirit. I can have an honest reaction that someone has wrinkles and is old. That doesn’t make them a heartless curmudgeon. And some people are heartless curmudgeons, and me (the author) pointing out that fact does not make me (the author or the person) a heartless curmudgeon either.
What really gets me is that description of the judge is not mean! I’ve read it over and over and can’t interpret cruelty. However, I can see someone putting the bitch bias on Wallis and, ipso facto, any observation she makes is terrible.
Critique the Writing and Leave Bias at the Door, Please.
Moving on. The rest of my critique was a systematic blasting of the descriptions I loved the most out of that new chapter. All the things I thought made Wallis strong and honest and witty were things those women thought made Wallis a bitch. Every. Single. One.
Even my hidden fart joke was skewered! A fart joke hidden in a work of literature! Work with me, people!
At first, I rest my hands on the ledge of the witness box, but think the better of it when my fingertips darken with dust. This entire room is in desperate need of my domestic talents; one hundred years of must, body odor, and discreet English farts stuck in the walls without a single window to escape.
It wasn’t all bad; a woman of the generation I need to win over leapt to my side over and over. (I wanted to hug her for defending my honor but restrained myself.) She basically said to the others, “Look, shove it. Just because someone says something unlikeable doesn’t make them one-dimensional. This character’s personality is on this end of the spectrum, and if you were to go to the other end and make them saccharinely sweet, we could make the same accusation. But we don’t because it’s not true.”
Reframe the Criticism
But still. The whole affair hurt. Now that I’m writing this blog, I realize that it hurt me a lot. Not only from what felt like a personal attack, but I despaired about never winning over these women. But then I gave myself a metaphorical slap. When someone hurt my feelings when I was young my mom used to always comfort me by asking, “When someone calls you a car, are you a car?” The silliness of it always snapped me back into reality. “No, Mom, I’m not a car.”
This time it’s my readers calling Wallis a car. Ninety years of bad press and personal filters swirling around with the words I’ve chosen for her. Yes, I want redemption for Wallis and to show her human side, but most of all I want to say, “She’s not what you think.”
She’s not what you think. The character on the page is what I think. And I hope the writing is strong enough to break through the bitch bias and show her humanity.
Bonnie Bracken spent her first life as a bookstore manager, her second as a newspaper national sales manager, and the third as a mother. And through it all, she writes. It’s her sanity, her sanctuary, and the sweetheart to whom she always returns.
The fictional Le Morte D’Arthur first attracted her to tales of the British monarchy twenty years ago in college. She was sucked in by the romance and stayed for the detail. From there she worked her way through medieval monarchs, Henry VIII, Elizabeth and Victoria, took a detour to Catherine the Great in Russia, and finally stumbled across Edward VIII’s Nazi story. She dove in headfirst with the same devotion to marry her two great loves: British history and writing. Currently, she is working on her second draft of Abdicated to prepare for resubmission. She has completed two unpublished novels, a collection of short stories, and an outline for a sequel to Abdicated. Learn more at www.bonniebracken.com.
Have you ever felt personally attacked for the way you wrote a character? How much leeway does an author writing historical fiction have in assigning thoughts, feelings, or traits to her characters? I hope you’ll join this discussion in the comments.
Candace Johnson is a professional freelance editor, proofreader, writer, and writing coach who has worked with traditional publishers, self-published authors, and independent book packagers on nonfiction subjects ranging from memoirs to alternative medical treatments to self-help, and on fiction ranging from romance to paranormal. As an editorial specialist, Candace is passionate about offering her clients the opportunity to take their work to the next level. She believes in maintaining the author’s unique voice while helping them create and polish every sentence to make it the best it can be. Learn more here.
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