What Happens When You Don't Like a Friend's Work?

Over the years, I've become twitterfriends with quite a lot of writers: SF/F writers, games writers, transmedia writers, bloggers, and on and on. They are to a one funny, clever, insightful people. (Then again, if they weren't I wouldn't be following 'em, so there's that.) One of my ambitions for this year is to do a lot more reading, particularly the work of all these people that I love and respect from social media.

Which raises an interesting question: what happens if I read something written by someone I really, really like... and I really, really don't like it?* And of course there's the flip side of that: what if someone I'm friends with really, really doesn't like my work?

Various writers have talked about whether or not they should ever write negative reviews of another writer's work. These are often couched in terms of reputation and career -- negative reviews might rob you of a valuable connection, negative reviews might rob the reviewee of potential sales, etc. etc. 

But there's not a whole ton of attention paid to what I think is a deeper underlying issue. Genre fiction, in particular, is a fairly small community of creators. Many -- maybe most! -- of that peer group are friends, or at least friendly. So in a negative-review situation, the problem isn't just one of what's best for your career. Often the question is how to manage a potential source of conflict and tension in your relationship with somebody you really like a lot.

Even aside from outright reviews, if you simply talk a lot to another writer and find their work not to your taste, poorly executed, or otherwise lacking, do you tell them? Do you just keep quiet and hope it never comes up? Do you cherry-pick one thing you kinda liked and talk it up?

Whether to be open and honest about the not-liking is going to heavily depend on the nature of the relationship. In general the closer you are, the more honest you can be; there's not much point in going out of your way to tell a nodding acquaintance that their latest book just didn't rev your engine, or you think they must have been drunk on bathtub gin and battery acid to write so poorly.

In a closer or warmer friendship, it can be a lot trickier, to be honest. There's no one right way to handle it, because human beings aren't a one-size-fits-all kind of deal.

But one thing is absolutely clear: if you find you dislike something created by someone you really like, it's important to remember that taste varies. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if you don't like something, it is unlikeable. That if you don't care for the writing or the characters or the plotting or the worldbuilding, it's because the writing is actively and objectively bad.

This is not the case. Let's say that again: Taste varies.

For my part, I'm totally fine when friends don't like something I've done; I've never thought I'd receive universal love and acclaim to begin with. My writing isn't perfect, nor will it ever be. And even if I were to execute perfectly on my vision, eh, different people enjoy different things. Sometimes, what I'm putting out there just isn't what someone else wants to pick up. And that's not just OK, it's to be expected!

A healthy separation between the creator and the creation is always, always important -- especially for the creator. It's tragically easy to feel like the way that someone reacts to your writing is a referendum on your worth as a human being.

But the fact is that no writer, no artist, has universal appeal. Taste varies, perception of quality even varies, and that's cool. We can all still be friends.

* ...And to all of my suddenly worried and more than slightly neurotic writer friends, I really, REALLY promise this isn't about you. It's not about anyone in particular. Relax, we're cool.