I’m pleased to present a second guest post from Michael Gee, former Boston Herald sports columnist.
The only thing writers knows about their work before they start is that when it’s finished, someone won’t like it.
There has never been and never will be fiction or nonfiction created by human beings that won’t be intensely disliked by at least a few other human beings. The opening night of “Macbeth,” I guarantee that one patron left the Globe Theater and said in a very loud voice (loud was the Elizabethan Internet) “That didst sukketh!!”
Sportswriters, even the very best, are no Shakespeares. Writing for public consumption in a format as transistory as is daily journalism (or hourly journalism, these days), all one can hope for is to have the “liked its” outnumber the “hated its” by the largest possible margin – say 50.000001 percent. For this piece, which is written for a site named “Media Watch,” I’ll he happy with 30 percent. This is a tough room. Nobody clicks to a site with that title because they believe said media is doing a bang-up job.
The writer and his/her audience are always going to coexist in a state of some tension. Everyone wants to be liked and wants their work appreciated. On the other hand, nobody wants to read something they don’t like, either.
As a now very part-time writer who remains a full-time reader, I am in full sympathy with both of these apparently opposite sentiments. It took a long time for me to learn that universal approval was a fool’s goal in sports column writing, but it was the most liberating knowledge of my career. It took me an even longer time as a reader to learn that my judgments on what I read were as subject to human error as what I wrote, but that was more liberating. So in the full knowledge of the mixed (I hope) reaction to come, here are the lessons I learned, which I try to apply when both writing and reading.
1. Differences of opinion are not criticism. This is sports, not physics. Right and wrong answers are few and far between. If a writer takes a position, and a reader says, “you’re wrong, you idiot,” that’s not an insult. That’s not criticism. It’s an argument. A diligent reader will make his side of the argument, and any writer with a lick of sense will pay attention.
1a. If, as I was, a writer is in the opinion business, being wrong every so often is an occupational hazard. You’re supposed to start arguments from time to time. Columnist and Nobel Prize-winner Paul Krugman said it best: “A columnist who is never wrong is not taking enough risks.”
2. Judging writing is infinitely subjective, and there are going to be some readers who dislike all the work of some writers and there’s nothing the writer can or should do about it. That’s not really criticism, either.
Let me make an example from my own reading. Bill Simmons is probably the most-read sports columnist in America. Obviously he has talent. Nobody becomes that popular without ability. Bill’s writing leaves me cold, so I don’t read him anymore. If Bill worries about that, he’s nuts. Due to his enormous exposure, Simmons is destined to be more widely unpopular as well as popular. It’s a paradox he can ponder on those pleasant journeys to the bank.
There’s a poster on the BMSW message board whose writing I admire. He hates mine. This makes me sad, but it’s nothing to worry about – for either of us.
3. Here are things I DO worry about. If a critic says I made a factual error, that bothers me. If he’s right, that really bothers me. If people consistently said my work was unfair to those I write about, or that I was mean when it was uncalled for, or that it didn’t seem like I enjoyed sports, I wouldn’t just be bothered, I’d be distraught. The primary responsibilities of a sports columnist, as I saw them, were to be accurate when supporting my opinions and to be fair to everyone I covered. “Fair” and “nice” are not always the same thing, mind you.
4. The most important point of criticism for the writer is this: It means the critic read the damn thing, so right away, he/she is not your enemy, he/she is a cherished customer. Maybe they’ll like what you write next time.
The explosion of reader interaction made possible by the Internet is an enormous boon to sportswriters, and those who don’t think so are, to be polite, fools. The worst thing about writing is how lonely it is. Feedback, even the deranged anonymous kind, is far easier on the soul than the void of silence.
A writer who sneers at the critics is worse than a fool. That writer is an enemy of his own best interests.
Andre Laguerre was the most successful sports editor of the second half of the 20th century. He was the genius who in the 1960s turned “Sports Illustrated” from an enormous money-loser to the profitable national institution it has been ever since. He had three rules for running a sports magazine. Two of them are not relevant here, but one sure is. It merits a stand-alone paragraph here.
You can’t get too much hate mail.
Read Michael Gee’s blog: homegame