when you are criticized online for a harmful portrayal in your novel

Someone (or a lot of someones) called out my book on Twitter. What do I do?

Wait–I know you want to defend yourself against a call-out. I know that you did not intend to write something racist/sexist/otherwise harmful. But please take my advice: Do Not Defend Your Work. Do not attempt to explain why you wrote what you wrote, or what you meant or didn’t mean by it. “But my work is being treated unfairly. People are misunderstanding it. It’s being taken out of context. I didn’t mean any harm.” Even so: Do Not Defend Your Work. When someone calls you out, they are not looking for you to clarify your intentions. They are looking for “I’m sorry. I will find a way to redress this.” Any other response will prompt your critics to call you out again, this time on your defense of your work. Your defense might also cause further (unintentional) harm. This isn’t what you want. Trust me, I have seen all kinds of responses to call-outs; when someone responds by trying to explain their work, the situation becomes worse for everyone involved. If you don’t feel you can say “I’m sorry, I will find a way to redress this” then don’t say anything at all right now.

Okay, you’ve told me what NOT to do, but what should I do?

1. Get offline. Read the criticism when you are ready, or have a trusted friend relay it to you. You don’t need to delete your account; just step away from the computer for a while so you can reflect before you react.

2. Make sure your supporters know not to defend you, because well-meaning defenses can make the situation worse. And some defenses will not be well-meaning at all and will be quite hurtful.

3. Consider tweeting something like, “I’m listening and reflecting right now.” Otherwise, do not respond at all right now. Above all, do not contact the person who called you out.

4. Contact your agent and let him/her know what’s going on. Your agent will definitely have some wise perspective. Also, your agent needs to know about this stuff.

5. Do not announce that you are receiving hurtful messages from a third party as a result of a call-out, even if those messages are vicious (e.g. suggesting self-harm). It is truly terrible that someone would send you such a message, but bringing it up publicly deflects from any pain your work may have caused others and puts the focus on the pain you are feeling, which won’t resolve the situation. Give a trusted friend your twitter password and have them mute accounts that are tweeting vicious things at you.

6. When you are ready, reflect on the criticism. Ask somebody who understands the criticism to help you understand it. (Again, do not ask anyone calling you out to do this.)

7. Figure out how you can redress any harm you have done. This harm was probably unintentional on your part, but even unintentional harm must be redressed. Consider making changes to your novel pre-publication, or if it’s too late for that, ask for changes to be made in future printings. There are other ways to redress harm, but I leave that to you.

8. Do not defend your work. Do not explain why you wrote what you wrote. Don’t try to tell people that you never meant any harm.

But why do I need to do any of those things if I never meant to hurt anyone or if I don’t think my work is hurtful?

This is a topic I cannot adequately address here. Please check out the Helpful Links for longer thoughts on this topic.

Helpful Links

Misa Sugiura’s blog post on “When Your Book Gets Called Out…” Part 1