Michael Gee on Handling Criticism

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

  • Angry Old Bastard

    “Feedback, even the deranged anonymous kind, is far easier on the soul than the void of silence.”

    and there you have it. Can’t stand Shank Shaugnessy?…Hate Borges?….then IGNORE them….I know, it’s tough to do sometimes but it’s the best revenge…..

    • Jason Coyote

      You’re right, AOB. It’s akin to going to a game, seeing a player you hate and remaining silent. Much easier to boo, berate and belittle the guy instead.

  • sam

    sports writing is for the most part useless because it follows a certain script no matter what and rarely deviates. you have several storylines that are always the same and written in the same manner day after day ad infinitum. you also have similiar retread useless opinion and the buying into the existential circularity of sports opinion which results in criticism of that opinion from the reading/listening public and, with rare exception, that criticism is a complete waste of time.

    see the tetlock study, you get the same results having a blind monkey make predictions as you would ‘opinion writers’ or ‘pundits’. am i going to sit around writing notes to a blind monkey because the monkey’s random predictions were wrong?

  • Michael C

    This, to me, is another example of how we just care too much about all of this. It is just sports … on the front pages of the paper are issues that result in human beings dying, someetimes as a result of weapons paid for with our tax dollars.

  • late to dinner

    Michael:

    You missed the thing that drives fans the most bonkers. Its not that you or any other writer has opinions. Its that you and all other sports writers seem to lack institutional memory and the humility to say “I was wrong”. Sports reporting/commentary (the line is so blurred now a days that it is almost impossible to define a distinction between the two lives on the “what if” angle. “What if this had happened, what if the coach had made this other decision, what if the player had made the play differently, what if the GM had made a different personnel decision, what if the owner had enough money and political clout to dynamite Fenway and give us Sox fans a real stadium (okay that last one is a personal pet peeve)? These and the hundreds of questions like them are what todays sports reporters (whether they be bloggers, in print, on the radio or TV) are discussing ad nauseum. What we the listener/reader want is accountability. John Tomasse makes up a story. We want an apology from him and his editor and we want him fired. We want the author to realize he violated the trust we, the readers, had with him and we want his employer to realize that we the audience are not idiots. On a less severe note Mike Holley proclaims Ellis Hobbes the greatest thing since sliced bread. Acknowledging he was wrong, allows the fans to see Holley is human and more importantly have their opinions (those that thought Hobbes sucked) vindicated by someone with a bully pulpit.

  • J.R.

    The irony of all this, of course, is that reporters, writers, columnists, editors, and the electronic media in general — and SPORTS reporters, writers, columnists, editors, and electronic media in particular — are some of the most thin-skinned people on the planet. Don’t believe me? Send one of them a message the next time you spot a factual inaccuracy in their work and see what kind of response you receive.

    In their collective minds and souls they seldom, if ever, make mistakes, and when they do finally own up to one, it’s always either listed as a “correction” or issued as a semi-defiant, “I was right at the time” defense. Hey boys and girls, guess what? It’s OK to say and admit you were wr-wr-wr-wrong. (Hello Borges, Ordway, et al.)

    I’ll only speak for myself, but it’s that institutional “I’m above it all and I know better than you” air of entitlement and mindset in the sports media that many of these guys have that drives me right over the edge. Your average working stiff sports fan has more sports knowledge and savvy than 95 percent of those guys . . . and they know it.

    • Angry Old Bastard

      Exactly….some of those in the media love to ridicule the fans by calling us rumpswaps,cheerleaders and “fanboys”….to the contrary, I have no problem when someone in the media criticizes a local team…..It’s IN THE WAY THEY DO IT that bugs me. Can’t they be reasonable when they state their opinion?….Instead they YELL and SCREAM and state their opinion as if it were a FACT. (HELLO FELGER, HELLO BIG O)…that’s what goes up my arse…..Mike Reiss has been critical of the Patriots in the past. The difference is he does it in a calm rational manner, while also admitting he could be wrong…….The ass clowns like Felger and Borges act as if their opinion is Gospel and when they are wrong they run from their “opinions” or get short term memory loss and act like they never said what they said…..whatever, I guess they think it gets better ratings to act like that. and maybe it does……If so, maybe that says something about us.

      • JC

        It does get better ratings … so good, every media outlet in the country is falling over themselves to get into the Boston market and get their piece of the pie.

    • mandb97

      J.R. and AOB you are both spot on. In this day and age when it is very easy to prove someone wrong, a writer and editor has to be willing to step up and admit they are wrong. I do believe this though that unless people stop buying the particular paper or stop listening to the particular sports station then things wont change.

  • Jackson

    Michael, as usual,makes a lot of sense in what he writes. What doesn’t make sense to me is when media people criticize a Kevin Youkilis for being thin-skinned (correctly, by the way), yet at the same time circle the wagons when they, or one of their own, is proven wrong. Very few media members ever say, “I was wrong.” Fewer say, “I’m sorry” when they are damagingly wrong. Not to be redundant, but when Tomase wrote that ridiculously libelous (yes, libelous) column about the Rams’ taping walk-through, I don’t recall one writer calling him out for it. Rather, writers (such as Tom Curran – a usual reliable source) rationalized Tomase’s piece by saying that, while Walsh didn’t tape the walkthrough, he “monitored” it. Talk about double-speak. Media people are quick to criticize, but, God forbid, anyone should call them out.

  • Nopointe

    Sorry Michael but this post was totally wrong

  • ozzy

    I disagree strongly that deranged, anonymous feedback is worth anything. In fact, if thats all you seek then it leads to shiitstiring and “stooooorylines”. You can rattle the cages of Wayne’s Fadda and his buddies on the barstools all you want. You’ll get a lot of “commentary”. You’ll make a lot of money and drink Pinkberrys in West Hollywood. Or you can write intelligent and insightful columns. Maybe you wont get to change the channel at Jimmy Kimmel’s every Sunday during football season but you can have a nice career you can be proud of like Joe Posnanski. Self respect counts more than deranged feedback.

    • Michael Gee

      I didn’t mean to say anonymous deranged comment is good in and of itself. I’d rather have comments like the ones here, which are heated but thoughtful. But anonymous and deranged feedback beats no feedback at all.
      But feedback has to be earned fairly, I agree. One writing technique I think is really wrong is not to write what you honestly think or feel just to stir people up. You’re right, anybody can do that. It takes no talent.

      • mandb97

        “One writing technique I think is really wrong is not to write what you honestly think or feel just to stir people up.”

        Ladies and Gentlemen I present to you, Michael Felger. The only difference is that he now speaks and writes very little. It’s a shame because he actually seemed to care now he just blathers on.

  • Chris

    I am completely convinced that with the dire state of print media today, many columnists purposely write ‘caustic’ or ‘incendiary’ content simply to lure readers (and comments). In the on-line world, which is pretty much the only world these people will soon know, this means eyeballs. Eyeballs mean clicks, and clicks mean ad revenue (however slight). The ‘caustic and incendiary’ columnist thus has a ‘metric’ that he or she hopes will guarantee future employment: “SEE! Look at all these COMMENTS! I MUST be supremely talented in what I do!” The laughable irony is that many print-media hacks truly set course with that objective in mind. It is a sad time to be in print media.

    • Big Jeff

      By this point in time this is either what these folks know, or what they have prepared for for so long that they have to keep holding on. The internet and new media age have showed demonstrably that the writers and talking heads are not the only ones with access to information, and their previous incarnation as “experts” is unraveling before their very eyes. Felger doesn’t “know” anything more than the fans, probably less than many actually. So he and others cling to what is left of their power and prestige the only way they can, which is to worry about generating clicks or listeners or viewers instead of trying to be informative.

      And that’s OK, if it’s entertainment now it’s entertainment now. Just don’t try to force feed the general public about how much more you know or how much more valid your opinion is because you chose a career as a “writer” that involves far less meaningful and challenging writing than any number of other careers.

      It’s not a big deal to say you like being around the game or like watching the guys in the locker room or whatever your reasons are for doing what you have chosen to do. But with the widespread access to information that can be used to call you on your opinions or factual inaccuracies, why blame the readers for calling you on it? I think it’s because they know that what they have chosen to do really isn’t that important to most people. You can find out what happened in the game by reading the box score. You can find out who was traded by reading the transactions log. Give your readers something worth reading and they’ll come back. Give your readers something they have to correct you on or argue with you over and they might come back, but they won’t think much of you. To most I suppose the latter doesn’t matter much. Maybe that’s a good thing.

  • Jack Edwards

    The problem I always had with Gee was that he never really evoked any feelings either way, and to me that is the worst sin a writer can commit. He was boring.

  • James Allen

    Ditto what Jack Edwards said.

    And might Michael Gee find that Simmons’s writing leaves him “cold” because back in the day of Boston Sports Guy, and daily links, he used to regularly crack on Gee?

  • Jason Coyote

    Speaking of columnists, the NY Times has seen several of their sports columnists depart over the years without replacing them. They’ve asked their beat writers to provide more commentary through blogging and the like. Might we soon start seeing more papers going in this direction as another way of cutting costs? Here’s the story discussing it:

    http://www.observer.com/2009/media/old-fashioned-sports-columnist-its-game-over

  • Siggy

    I’ve read Gee’s stuff in various places since he left the Herald and it seems better now than before. Liberated? Maybe.

    BTW, on Simmons: I read him religiously, until one day I didn’t. He was the perfect guy in the perfect place at the perfect time. And then I got the feeling that I had read everything Bill Simmons had to say. A few weeks ago I saw a tease on ESPN.com for his piece on the USA/Mexico soccer match and I knew what he was going to say and what set pieces he was going to use to say it. No need to click on it at all.

    An observation on some in The Media who make it big: You come in as the iconoclast, but nature demands that as you succeed you become the icon. Just as Big O slowly becomes Eddie Andelman, Simmons is inexorably becoming Dan Shaughnessy.