640K is Enough – Dealing with Criticism and Negative Feedback as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP)
There’s a quote attributed to Bill Gates where he supposedly defended the usable RAM limit of the IBM PC upon its introduction in 1981 by saying “640K ought to be enough for anybody”. He’s since denied it ever happened, but the reason this is so often bandied about may be more important than the actual facts behind it; it’s very easy to make bold assertions about what will happen, but time can tell a different story.
While I was on the social media circuit last week touting Corbie to anyone who would listen, an email hit my inbox that felt timely. It contained a link to an entry on the blog of Kevin Eastman, the co-creator of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The post was about an angry letter that the TMNT team received early on, when the Turtles were the darlings of the indie comic circuit and before the 1987 cartoon brought them mainstream attention. The author is absolutely scathing about the quality of the Turtles comics, especially in relation to Marvel’s offerings. A few choice excerpts:
“This rag that you call a comic book is nothing but an over-priced, low-content piece of garbage. For $1.50, I can buy a Marvel comic such as the X-Men Vs. The Avengers, which has beautifully colored pages, and the paper is of good stock.”
“There is not one of your characters which will ever be as memorable as those that Marvel, specifically Lee, Kirby, and Ditko created, lo, those many years ago.”
The prediction that TMNT would be done in two years was about was far off the mark as you could get. By the turn of the decade the Ninja Turtles had a hugely popular TV show, an action figure line where supply couldn’t keep up with demand, and to that point, the highest-grossing independent film of all time.
Marvel itself wasn’t immune to criticism, even at the time. In the spring of 1984 it published the first issue in what was supposed to be a four-book miniseries based on a new toy line, The Transformers. The first review on what amounted to the Internet back then didn’t hold back:
“My vote for worst comic of the year would have to go to Marvel’s TRANSFORMERS #1. Has anyone out there seen it? I’m still trying to figure out why I wanted to spend $.75 on it in the first place, but any reason I may have had was inadequate.”
The post later concludes:
“First has been accusing Marvel of what ammounts to dumping. I cannot think of any other reason for this comic to exist,and admit to being mystified about its intended audience (esp given the price).”
Transformers absolutely did have an audience, even if those first few issues were a little rough around the edges. The US Marvel run eventually went for eighty issues. In the UK, where the US material was reprinted alongside new stories, it ran for 332 issues. Over the last 35 years the franchise has had both critical and commercial highs and lows, but it’s always had a devoted following.
Angry fan mail and online missives are perhaps easier to dismiss. But what about professional critics? Don’t take everything they say as gospel either. Today Ghostbusters is considered a classic film and among the greatest comedies of its time. Upon its release, Philip French, writing in The Observer, didn’t see it that way:
“[Ghostbusters] is a childish comedy populated for the most part by lecherous, foul-mouthed cynics, apparently aimed at adults, and awarded a PG certificate.”
And later, in the same piece:
“[Ghostbusters] is a lumbering affair that lacks the finesse and logic of good farce. The characters are constantly tripping over their own loose ends.”
If you consider yourself an HSP, the prospect of having to encounter criticism can seem particularly overwhelming. We tend to internalise these comments more – they will likely stay with us long after other people would have brushed them off and forgotten about them. After you’ve taken a good number of slings and arrows, it begins to affect your world view. You hold back, because it’s easier to say or do nothing and stay out of trouble.
Perhaps you’re in that position now. If so, I respect your decision to step away. Sometimes it’s necessary for your own well-being to not put yourself or your work out there. It gives you the opportunity to reflect and re-affirm that what you’re doing is right.
This all comes with the standard caveat that there’s an inherent benefit to constructive criticism, too. Being able to extract useful feedback from the vitriol is obviously a good thing. But I’d like to suggest the following: perhaps your critics are so far removed from the people you need to reach that what they say doesn’t carry much weight at all.
The die-hard Marvel fan who writes angry letters to independent comic creators telling them they’re no Jack Kirby obviously isn’t the target market for a black and white self-published comic about crime-fighting turtles.
The pious film critic likely wasn’t the audience Dan Ackroyd and Harold Ramis had in mind when they conceived Ghostbusters.
The guy from South Carolina posting on a comics newsgroup in 1984 could complain about the clunky writing in Transformers #1 until the cows came home if he wanted to. It wouldn’t matter. Kids loved those comics. I should know – I was one of them.
It’s an inevitability that as I continue thumping the book of Corbie, someone is going to take issue with it. They’ll go after the quality of the art, the writing, the concept of an HSP superheroine, the idea of HSPs in general, webcomics, or me personally. Some or all of their criticisms may be valid. Working through this is a necessary part of the process in order for me to reach the people who genuinely will see value in what this comic is trying to accomplish, and I’d like to encourage you to approach harsh criticism the same way in your own endeavours. If you’re getting positive feedback elsewhere then you might even take these occasional contrarian responses as a positive sign. As Winston Churchill purportedly said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.”
Bear in mind also that we all see ourselves as the stars of our own movie, which is a topic that might deserve its own post. In the grand scheme of things, one person or even a bunch of people ragging on you might feel awful, but don’t fall into the trap of assuming it represents some kind of devastating consensus about your self-worth. In all likelihood they’ll soon direct their ire at someone or something else, and won’t give you a further thought, so why should you get hung up about it? In a lot of cases the hate you receive won’t even be about you really, but a projection of that person’s own frustrations.
Ultimately, some people will always say you’re wrong, but not all criticism is created equal. Listen to what your base is saying first and foremost, they’re the ones with your best interests at heart and the most likely to stick by you in the long term. Instead of proving the sceptics wrong, delight the true believers.