What Every Artist Can Learn From the Latest Scandal in Young Adult Literature

If the Sarah Dessen Twitter debacle has taught us anything, it’s that reviews are not for you

Photo: Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Getty Images

IfIf you’re a writer, you probably went down the rabbit hole that was the Sarah Dessen Twitter debacle, just like I did this week. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, you can read about it in depth here or elsewhere. Here’s a quick recap: A grad student at Northern State University in South Dakota made a statement to a local news outlet about how she joined her school’s Common Read selection committee to make sure the chosen book was not one by Sarah Dessen. Dessen, an adult author who writes young adult fiction novels, responded to the statement by tweeting that she’s “having a really hard time right now and this is just mean and cruel.” Name-calling and nastiness ensued, with hugely popular authors on Twitter coming to Dessen’s side and blasting the grad student. It was a mess.

I want to share a lesson, courtesy of this brouhaha. It’s for fellow writers, artists, or really anyone who is emotionally attached to their work. That lesson is this: After you release your work — a book, a documentary, a Tweet, a presentation you post on LinkedIn — it no longer belongs to you. It belongs to the consumer.

Think of it like a shirt. The owner of that shirt gets to do whatever she wants with that shirt — mark it up with puffy paint, tear it to shreds, or cut off the collar and turn it into an ’80s-style off-the-shoulder top. The rule still applies even if the designer spent hundreds of hours researching collars, perfecting the collar’s shape and structure, and traveling to far-off lands for a rare material to use for the collar. It doesn’t matter. The shirt is out of the designer’s possession.

When we talk about the thing we created, we often use words like “baby” and “birthing.” And it is a kind of birth. Creating is as close to being gods as we’re ever going to get. But the work we labored over belongs to us only up until the moment it’s complete.

This is galling, sure, but it’s also freeing. Because as urban fantasy novelist Stacia Kane reminds us on her blog, “Authors, reviews are not for you. They are not for you. Authors, reviews are not for you.” The fact is that each person who reads/listens to/looks at/uses your work is going to get something out of it that’s colored by their own experiences. It may not be what we, the creators, intended, but that’s okay.

Dessen injected herself into a conversation that she didn’t belong in. (Replying to reviews and criticism is pretty much always a bad idea.) Others artists have made the same mistake. Author Richard Ford once got so angry about a New York Times review by Alice Hoffman that he took one of Hoffman’s books and shot it.

If the only way you can understand this is to put blinders on to public criticism, then do it. Elizabeth Gilbert has written that when people ask how she deals with criticism, she tells them that she doesn’t: “I avoid criticism about myself not because I DON’T care what people say about me, but because I DO care. I am sensitive and easily bruised. I know that critical words can hurt me, and I am not in the business of hurting myself on purpose.”

Gilbert says she accepts and listens to negative feedback from a small group of people “who have earned the right to offer me criticism.” You might do the same. Or you can create a process for yourself for when you come across a bad review. Perhaps the moment you feel yourself wanting to respond, you go for a run, call a trusted friend, or do some other ritual that does not involve engaging with the critic.

Whatever you do, don’t get into the mess. Remember that you have done the work, and now it’s out of your hands. When you finally understand this, when you see your art as a gift to the world that no longer belongs to you, you’re free to create the next thing.

Learn. Write. Repeat. Visit me at ninjawriters.org. Reach me at shauntagrimes@gmail.com. (My posts may contain affiliate links!)

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