Newsflash: Not All Negative Reviews Are The Work of Trolls
In the good old days, trolls lived under bridges, and were presumably illiterate, and ate people but were easily fooled by little gruff billy goats. Or, they had amazing hairstyles and jewels about their person, and were popular with children. Nowadays, they seem to lurk anonymously on internet forums and upset people.
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Sometimes, it's very obvious when someone is trolling you or an article or whatever. Sometimes they are just plain abusive, or just have a negative opinion they need for whatever reason to get off their chest, or a compulsive need to argue with someone for the sake of it. Threats and abusive language - that's all trolling, and that's not cool. They usually post short comments like, "You're all so stupid, I'm laughing at you all right now" and generally baiting people. Some people are unintentional trolls, of course, and they are sometimes just as bad.
However, in the world of beta-readers, readers and those who comment on your work, "trolling" can be more problematic. When a writer is new, before they have toughened their skin into a full-blown exo-skeleton, it's very easy to hide behind the concept of trolling and cry "troll" at every opportunity when someone says something about your work that you don't like.
They may not like it for actual reasons of their own but don't have the ability or the vocabulary to express themselves and say why they don't like it. Someone who gets a bad review and then says "I was trolled" needs a few more bad reviews, clearly, because they need to get used to people not liking their work. People who get a bad review, feel sorry for themselves, then shake it off and learn from it, are the ones who get better at what they do.
But the trouble with trolling is, because it's a genuine problem, people use it as an excuse. They salve their egos with that soothing thought, they didn't like it, because they are a troll.
The truth is, you will always find someone who hates what you've written, someone who gets bored of it, someone who doesn't get it, someone who just doesn't care, and someone who likes it fine but not enough to continue beyond a certain point. You'll also find people who really like it, people who love it, and people who even fangrrrrrrl over it. The danger is to be so caught up in chasing the positive reactions that you can't handle the negative ones. And so, your fragile ego wrapped in the cotton wool and candyfloss of "OMG! You're SUCH a great writer!!" and "This is the best thing I've ever read", knowing they are genuine comments from genuine fans, cannot handle the "this sucks", or the "I thought this was pretty unimaginative", or the "what the fuck is this shit" when it comes along.
Now, I get why trolling is (rightly) discouraged. But there's a massive difference between writing a one-off comment like the above, and coming back again and again to write the same comment in different ways with increasing levels of nastiness and frustration. There's a big difference between thinking, this person won't leave me the hell alone, it's really creeping me out and upsetting me, and thinking, ouch, a single negative remark with no feedback! That really hurt my feelings! But it's ok, I'll be ok, I will get through this, because I can call TROLL! TROLL! TROOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOLL!
No one says TROLL when someone says "good writing", or "I like this". It's just as vague and unhelpful as "this sucks" or "I didn't like this." The only difference, then, is the opinion conveyed in the vague few words.
People who have something negative to say are also entitled to their opinion, and they should be allowed to say it without having you retaliate or jump down their throats. They don't owe you anything. They don't have to automatically like your work just because they picked it up and thumbed through it, or downloaded it onto an app on their device. And if people who have something nice to say are allowed to say it in erudite, dumb, grammatically perfect, grammatically disastrous, or just good old vague ways, so too should people who didn't like it be allowed to express themselves in the same ways. Don't accept positive comments if you don't want to accept negative ones: they are two sides of the same coin. Or rather, they are the same side of the coin, because (to stretch this metaphor to breaking point) the other side of the coin is not writing for the public at all.
If I have a sweary negative comment that's a one-off, I ignore it, and if it's been flagged as "offensive" and therefore is in a queue to be reviewed by the powers-that-be, I'll un-flag it. I have, in fact, done just that. And why? Because they have the right to use the words "shit" and "crap" if they want to, if that's what they think. That's fine. I allow people to use the same sort of emphatic language in positive comments, so why shouldn't people who don't like it not be allowed to swear? "What the fuck is this shit, it sucks, " is NOT REALLY trolling. "Hey, bitch, what the fuck is this shit? You suck" IS trolling. The difference is that the first instance is a rhetorical question, and the gut reaction someone had to reading my work and just not liking it. The second is directed at me as a person, and uses personal, intrusive and abusive language. The first is directed at the writing, which is fine - the writing can't hear, or feel, or be upset. It's a product, and the question of whether it's good or bad is entirely subjective. Feeling upset on behalf of your writing does not make the negative comment any less valid, I'm afraid. The second version, however, is personal, attacking the person behind the writing, and that's the key difference. A person can feel, and be upset. And that's the intention behind the comment.
I have had to report this sort of abusive language, which is a totally different thing. I once had a really random string of comments that were sent to me privately by an individual who had found my author page and worked themselves up into a frenzy, accusing me of hacking their account at one point when their Facebook glitched (!! this wasn't even on my Facebook author page, it was a different, unrelated site) and calling me a "bitch" repeatedly and demanding to know what I had done and "who the fuck" I REALLY was. *X-Files theme plays* I managed to calm them down, and then reported the incident, as I was quite concerned about their mental health. They even thanked me for taking the time to sort out their technical problem in the end, which was a little bizarre. The whole thing had started with them observing that my work was disturbing and that since I had a PhD in "science" (I don't, it's in history) I should do something better with it than meddle with the occult (I think they thought my dark fantasy series was somehow real). I'm not sure that counts as a troll - I think they genuinely believed they were being helpful, and clearly had some problems.
Then I see writers throwing little hissy fits over bad reviews which make some valid points, but some points which are just clearly personal preference, and slamming the TROLL label on without taking anything on board, even if it's a genuine review. I've seen that happen - and sadly, it takes those writers a lot longer to hone their craft than it would do if they just accepted they are not freaking Tolstoy. And this, ladies and gents, is the trouble with crying troll.