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Book Review: Toxic Feedback – Helping Writers Survive and Thrive

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It could be argued that writers come from dysfunctional backgrounds. Now, I don’t think this is an absolute, but surely some of us have had at least a taste of the tortured artist syndrome? The point comes up, because the word toxic tends to conjure up more than just a dirty ocean, or nasty creeping mold found in an unfortunate dwelling. For many of us, toxic connotes a little psychobabble popular a few years back.

But more importantly, toxicity hurts. Big time. Cole recounts a story from her early writing days. She had taken a college class in fiction writing and every week hopeful students submitted a story to the teacher who would pick one for a class discussion. When Cole submitted hers, it was not picked. That didn’t upset her so much, but she really wanted to hear the professor’s feedback. As soon as she could, she reviewed her manuscript to see his comments. She had to search the whole thing and finally found just three words on the back, “It’s all wrong.” 

As Cole demonstrates in Toxic Feedback, this is the kind of criticism that can outright silence someone, or create skittish writers who cannot freely express themselves, because they stopped being honest on the page.

Cole’s purpose in writing this book is to not only make us cautious when giving feedback, but also to help us understand what to avoid on the receiving end, and if you can’t avoid, how to bounce back from critiques and feedback that come under the guise of helpful, but in reality are very harmful

Her writing voice is very engaging, very friendly. She reminds me of some of my favorite writing authorities; Natalie Goldberg, Annie Lamott and of course, Stephen King. And as these accomplished authors do, Cole actually imparts useful wisdom, not just on finding and understanding feedback, but on the general process of writing.

In a chapter called Feedback Hotlines, Cole uses the examples of her own lifesaving colleagues: 

“So now when my mind has gone blank, I often phone Meredith, because Meredith is a scientist-pagan-novelist who knows something interesting about everything.

Or I’ll call Lois who writes powerful poetry and is in her late eighties, because when Lois doesn’t like something I’ve written, she tells me bluntly, and how can I get mad at someone in her eighties? 

Or I’ll phone Deb, a no-nonsense editor who actually came over to my house in response to one of my calls and decluttered my impossible desk.

Or I’ll call John, an academic, because he is the smartest book-person I know in real life, which makes him the perfect test subject for my half-baked ideas.

Or I’ll email Beth, an army sergeant once stationed at Saddam Hussein’s presidential palace, because Beth writes honest, funny prose and stops me from being too writerly or sounding like Madonna with that faux British accent”

Cole laid out the chapters in her book Toxic Feedback in a logical sequence, but each one has the lovely advantage of being able to stand-alone. She also gives the reader an additional bonus by including anecdotes by several well-known authors such as Jennifer Cruise, Ernest Herbert and Julia Alvarez. These supplementary pieces add clarification of the main point of individual chapters. 

One that strikes a chord is the story of Samina Ali, author of Madras on Rainy Days. Ali was 40 pages into her novel when she submitted a proposal to various agents. She soon received a call from a very enthusiastic agent who kept calling her ‘darling’ and wanted to not only make her a star, but also change the title and format of the story.

The agent was so persuasive that Ali signed a contract, however, since it was the weekend, she had to wait till Monday before she could mail it back. In the meantime, she received another call from an agent in New York, who spoke to her for two hours, and who understood what Ali was trying to say in Madras, and wanted to help her get her own story told, and not publish someone else’s vision. Ali ultimately signed with this man from Janklow & Nesbit, who sold the manuscript to Farrar, Strauss & Giroux – and earned Ali the largest advance the publisher had ever offered to a first-time author. 

It’s alarming to think what would have become of Ali’s work, had she listened to the initial feedback, and not listened to her inner voice. I’ll offer that it’s also troubling to think what would have happened if Joni Cole had heeded the “it’s all wrong” comment. Now that – would have been very wrong.

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  • Mark Saleski

    natalie goldberg AND anne lammott? gees, i’m gonna have ta get it.

    it’s all your fault.

  • Good! It’s definitely one to keep with the best in everyone’s reference corner