Caitlin Flanagan's name written across a stack of magazines

Getting Burned at the Stake


A quick Google search of my name (or, as I used to call it, back when this was a phrase people used, “my good name”) will reveal many burnings at the stake, all of which I have survived, proof that I am either a witch, a legendary bird, or (another phrase from the past!) a working writer.

How have I survived these withering responses to my work?

Sometimes I think of Hitchens: “All the right enemies.”

Or of Hunter Thompson’s note to Bill McKeen: “McKeen, you shit-eating freak. I warned you about writing that vicious trash about me – Now you better get fitted for a black eye patch just in case one of yours gets gouged out by a bushy-haired stranger in a dimly-lit parking lot. How fast can you learn Braille? You are scum.”

Sometimes I look at the byline and think – “What a hack.”

Sometimes I reread the piece and think, “S/he’s got a good point.”

But after many years, I have realized that there is a certain compliment made when someone takes your work seriously enough to wrestle with it. My critics have influenced my work – sometimes making me rethink an opinion, sometimes strengthening my own conviction about something. Almost all of the good ones have been fair enough to recognize something of worth in my writing, and I have learned to be grateful for that. Once I got a review so ugly, ad holmium and prominently placed that I had to have God destroy the writer’s career a year later, but I try to use my forces for good.

But here’s the interesting thing: several times – no, many times by now – I’ve met the people who have written harsh things about my work. We tend to get on like a house on fire. We’re interested in the same things, we’ve been tending gardens in the same rocky soil of contemporary, long-form print journalism, and – we’re both writers. Meaning we’ve both received and given a bunch of bad reviews over our careers, and we sort of understand one another on a level than many of our friends and family members can’t. I guess the real answer to this equation is that – my writing can take it. I am a strong, fearless, opinionated writer, and I can’t be a damsel in distress, fainting on the couch when someone takes exception to it. I’ve had to become someone as strong and fearless as her own writing. And this works a solid ten percent of the time.

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