The first straw man (on writing about Others)

by nike, September 12, 2016
What happens when straight men write about lesbian experience ...

What happens when straight men write about lesbian experience …

On September 8, Lionel Shriver gave a keynote address at the Brisbane Writers Festival that galvanised several people into action, commentary and anger. Yassmin Abdel-Magied walked out of the session and wrote about her reasons for doing so. Others have written in defence of what they saw as Shriver’s key message: that fiction writers, but especially straight, white fiction writers, can write about whoever they choose to write about. Without consent or consultation, without knowledge, without any responsibility to those whose identities they assume. And without, or so Shriver apparently would prefer, having to deal with what she characterised as the overly ‘sensitive’ or critical responses of those whose identities and experiences are being co-opted, appropriated, written over. Silenced. Caricatured.

Shriver’s speech (could have) addressed the questions that Dashka Slater identified in a piece on attempts to diversity ‘lily-white kid lit’. Slater noted that:

The questions roiling the children’s publishing world are among the pressing cultural questions of our time: Whose story gets told, and who gets to tell it? How do you acknowledge oppression without being defined by it? And to what extent should writers bow to popular opinion? (emphasis added).

Of course, like most people attending or floating around on the edges of the BWF, I have opinions about these things. Thoughts. And I thought I’d just put some of them down. A few dot points from the POV of a queer person, and a woman [1]. I could write a book, but I’m going to try to stick to just a couple of thousand words.

Straw men

Shriver’s speech ridiculed those who were ‘too sensitive’ about cultural appropriation. We’ve all heard this argument before. And we’ve probably also all heard the extended argument, that defends the right of fiction writers to create whatever characters they choose, and to write about them however they see fit.

This is the argument that implies that criticism of a writer’s choices around who they write about, and how they write about characters whose experiences and identities are distinctly different from their own, are somehow being restricted. Policed. By over-sensitive folk.

This is a classic straw man argument. It implicitly or explicitly proposes a situation that is demonstrably not true (that, for example, white people are being prevented from writing about people of colour, or that straight people are being prevented from writing about queer people), and then argues against it. A straw man argument is a logical fallacy: a way of misrepresenting your opponent’s position or arguments, in order to make them easier to refute.

This particular straw man argument conflates criticism and debate with censorship. They are not the same things. There is no current censorship around who writes who. There are no laws. There are no restrictions. And we are not likely to see any come into play.

While I, as a queer person, might strongly prefer that straight people not write from the viewpoint of a queer person, there is no law–explicit or implicit–that will stop them from doing so. A politically-aware and sensitive publisher might reject the resulting work, but another might pick it up. It might hit the bestseller lists, win awards and acclaim. Reviewers might laud it, bloggers exclaim its awesome insights. Others might ask questions, cast doubts, be critical. That’s writing, dear friends. That’s what it is to enter the great fictional conversation.

The fictional conversation

If we restrict our definition of the great fictional conversation just to print, and just to English, we would notice that this particular conversation has been going on for about six hundred years, roughly since the invention of the modern printing press by Johannes Gutenberg.

We might also notice that, for about five hundred of those years, roughly 99% of the people who got to participate in that conversation were straight white men. White men telling stories about white men. Every now and then, a White Man might tell a story about a White Woman, or a Black Man, or some other Exotic Creature. The White Man would bring every inch of his insight and imagination to the telling of the story of the Other, but his imagination would be severely limited by having only ever lived as a White Man, and only ever been exposed to mostly White Men’s writing. Very, very occasionally, a White Woman might find the time, means and support to write and publish a story, which might be taken seriously by White Men, but probably not. Her book might be about some aspect of what it is to be a White Woman, in which case it can safely be dismissed as irrelevant to the Great Conversation (which is, after all, and has always been, about White Men’s Shit). Or she might attempt to write about White Men. After all, having grown up sitting quietly at the table of the White Men, reading and listening to the great conversation, she has some understanding of how the thing is done. Preliminary studies have revealed that White Women who write stories about White Men are more likely to be awarded and applauded than those who write about White Woman.

I’m being a bit silly and facetious, but the point is that the world of fiction is not a level playing field and does not have a benign, benevolent or even neutral history. It is a conversation from which anyone other than Straight White Men have been largely excluded, as authors and as subjects.

Radclyffe Hall's 'The Well of Loneliness' ...

Radclyffe Hall’s ‘The Well of Loneliness’ …

My sense is, too, that there are poorly understood, powerful but almost invisible structural biases that impact on which narratives by Others about Others enter the conversation. My sense is that, often, when a particular Other is allowed to speak–is heard–it is often something of a poisoned chalice.

I’m uncomfortably aware, for example, that one of the first lesbian works of fiction in English, by a lesbian author, is Radclyffe Hall’s 1928 novel The Well of Loneliness [2]. The novel follows the tragic life of Stephen Gordon, a lesbian who finds, in a rather well-known book by a real Straight White Man (Richard Krafft-Ebbing’s Sexual Psychopathy: A Clinical-Forensic Study), an understanding of her sexual identity as an ‘invert’. It is a desperately sad book about a lonely, emotionally isolated, self-loathing woman. Stories like this, that affirm he cultural misperception that being-a-lesbian means that a woman is inherently unhappy, miserable, dysfunctional, suicidal, etc, feed into the homophobic cultural bias of the mainstream. They are our stories, sure, but they are not our only stories.

More recently, the most popular English-language book by a lesbian about lesbian experience was probably Sarah Waters’ Tipping the Velvet. I happen to adore this book, as queer folk often adore ANY representations of their experience that are even partially authentic, thrilling, engaging, witty. But at the same time I’m very aware of how it feeds into two key themes in mainstream/straight culture’s ideas about queer women: it presents the bisexual woman as duplicitous and cruel, and resolves the main character’s life of sexual and romantic adventures with a cloying and unconvincing hormonormative ‘settling down’ that includes a sudden passion for housework, as well as a household of baby, and a mousy, earnest, straight-acting partner.

Magdalene Visaggio’s writes, powerfully and articulately, about the similar problems that often arise when cis people (those whose biological gender = their self-identity) write about (appropriate) transgender experiences:

It’s an arena where respect is mixed with what sometimes feels like a willful disregard, and—as always—an assumption that our stories are the purview of others to tell, as if we ourselves were voiceless

The fact is that we’ve been largely shut out of mainstream media unless we are telling the stories of our unhappiness and transformations … Prurient, salacious, tragic, taboo.

'Alters' is the focus of Visaggio's excellent piece on cis folk writing about trans people's experience ...

‘Alters’ is the focus of Visaggio’s excellent piece on cis folk writing about trans people’s experience …

Later in the same piece, Visaggio writes about what becoming more visible in the mainstream can mean for trans folk: an argument that, I think, applies more generally across queer experience as well (at least in its broad terms), and possibly to POC, people with disabilities, and so on:

There’s a critical difference between cisgender narratives of being trans and real self-directed narratives: it turns being trans into a spectacle, something to be stared at, consumed. It’s strange and other and foreign, and the presentation is driven by a gaping fascination with the facts of transformation.

So, two challenges that we face in entering the conversation of straight, white, masculinist, patriarchal, colonial, able-bodied, capitalist culture:

  1. When we get to write our own stories, often those that are considered acceptable, authentic, true, or interesting, are those that conform to the (often wrong-headed) prejudices and preconceptions of the mainstream. Those that follow the shapes, tones, and forms of hundreds of years of straight, white, western narrative tradition. Those that confirm their worst fears about us.
  2. When other write about us, their stories are often the result of a perhaps well-intentioned or sympathetic, but nevertheless toxic, witches’ brew of sympathy (rather than empathy), exoticisation, and curiosity. They are stories that emphasise our difference and oddness in ways that we might find (and that might be), by turns, belittling, incorrect, misinformed, infantilising, cruel, or just plain old catering to the writers’ own prejudices about who we are and what we do. Marking us as aliens, enemies, pets.

Difference inverted is (not) difference maintained

In many of the responses defending Shriver’s speech on social media, I’ve seen people post lists of works of fiction that (for them) demonstrate the importance of continuing to ‘allow’ people in a position of relative privilege to create and write stories about Others. These lists are dominated by examples of works by white people writing about POC from various cultures and backgrounds, but some of them are also examples of POC writing about white people, or queer people writing about straight people, or disabled people writing about able-bodied characters.

I think (though I’ve lost the reference) that it was Stephen Heath that wrote that ‘difference inverted is difference maintained’, suggesting that, if we invert the cultural power dynamic between men and women, all we do is substitute one system of oppression for another that is its equal. Equally destructive. Equally unfair. I think this is absolutely true, and that it is an idea that, in a perverted form, is often used as a straw man argument against measures such as positive discrimination. The straw man version suggests that we must have the same rules, regulations and expectations for all humans, regardless of their identity.

Which, on the surface, seems fair enough. Equal work, equal pay is a gender equality slogan that argues not for difference inverted, but for equality. The problem with the extreme or perverse version of ignoring difference and promoting absolute equality is that it also ignores the cultural, historical and social context(s) in which we live.

This world is not a level playing field.

If you were born white, able-bodied, straight and male, you were born into a life of relative privilege. Not absolute privilege (that is, there might be black people whose individual lives were easier than yours, or queer people, or people living with a disability). If you were born into a poor family, or a family who live in a remote rural area, or had parents who never learned to read and write, (or are living with a disability, or are a POC, an immigrant, a refugee, or a queer person) you still have to find a way to live happily and healthily in a world that is set up to reward and recognise those whose families are at least moderately wealthy, literate/educated, and urban. To do that, you might need some equal but different assistance. You might need, not equality, but equity. There’s a neat little meme that visually expresses the difference between equality and equity:


Now, let’s consider what this might mean in terms of gender, representation and literature.

The argument that a white person writing a POC, and a POC writing a white person are basically the same thing is an equality argument. It presumes a level playing field, in which both groups of writers are treated with equal dignity and respect, have had equal access to things like an education, publishing opportunities, publicity, etc. It also presumes that, rather than wanting to stand on the sidelines and cheer on the players on the field, our writers want to be on the field.

This is, as I’ve argued above, just not true. ‘Others’ do not have equal access to, or respect within, the world of publishing. Or the world at large. When you speak for queer people, or POC, or disabled people, instead of listening to us speak for ourselves, you quite possibly, ALMOST CERTAINLY, take away an opportunity for a POC, or a queer person, or a disabled person, to correct hundreds of years of silence, misrepresentation, and misinformation.

You are also in danger of performing something a little like what Rebecca Solnit described as ‘mansplaining’. A straight person who writes about what it is to a be queer person performs queerness not only for their straight audience, but for queer people, too. It overwrites queer people’s own deeper and more authentic understanding of themselves with an insensitive and inferior falsehood. A base simulation.

Michael Cunningham may have done a beautiful, and perhaps even authentic, job of writing about what it is to be an older queer woman in his novel, The Hours, but which older queer woman’s experience do you have to compare it to, in literature or in life? Which stories of queer women’s experiences have you read that were created by queer women, and not created by straight men or women, not mediated by them in film? How do you know it’s authentic, or ‘true’, unless you are an older queer woman? And, more importantly, what impact, potentially, could it have on the lived experiences of older queer women, if the culture in which they live’s ideas about their experiences, are entirely based on the imaginative writings of men?

The problem here, of course, is not that one queer man has written a story that features one queer woman’s experience. The problem is about context and numbers. It is related to the fact that men have been writing stories about women (and ignoring or silencing women telling stories about themselves) for centuries. That white people have been silencing or ignoring the stories of POC, and people from diverse cultures, for centuries. Writing over them. Appropriating them.

The problem is that POC, and queer people, and even white women, still live in a world in which their experiences have largely been imagined and expressed by others.

The problem is that we swim in your straight white culture every day. We breathe it in with our mother’s milk, and shit it out with your toxic sympathy. We know how to write your stories, because we have been immersed in them every day of our lives. And sometimes those stories are warm and funny and engaging and moving. Important and insightful. Particularly in terms of your straight white culture. But they are also limited. By your own experiences, by the overwhelming flood of cultural information that repeats, over and over, what it is to be white, to be straight, to be middle class and heterosexual, and by your inability to step outside of those stories.

To not imagine our stories in your own terms.

To not think that we are just you, with a different coloured skin, or a different sexual appetite.

So, no, it is not the same thing for a straight person to write about a queer person as it is for a queer person to write about a straight person. Because both straight and queer writers in white western culture live in a heteronormative culture. Because we are drowning in your stories, but you are not drowning in ours.

If only, or mostly, straight people write about queer experience then queer experience is not being expressed at all, or is only being expressed in limited terms. And there remains, always, the problem that our experience — queer experience — is only ever understood in the terms dictated by, or understood by, straight people.

Queer for a year/homeless for a day

Two small asides here, before I offer some final, summing up thoughts. There is a particular kind of appropriation that results when a writer presumes that they can immerse themselves in the life of another, and that this temporary immersion will provide them with a set of experiences (acts, emotions, responses) that are entirely identical to those of the people whose experiences or identity they temporarily adopt.

Not that long ago, Brooke Hemphill wrote and published what one reviewer described as a ‘Tedious, Sexist, Somewhat Homophobic, Poorly Written List of the People I have Dated’. Otherwise known as Lesbian for a year. 

In her thoughtful and comprehensive response to this … book, Amy Middleton wrote:

Through markedly disrespectful language, Lesbian for a Year hurts people. Some parts hurt me. Other parts hurt my family, my friends. Many parts will directly hurt the diverse readership of Archer, should they read it. And it will likely hurt them indirectly, even if they never come into contact with it.

Middleton goes on to argue, in a very balanced and thoughtful response to the book, that:

The style, title and cover of Hemphill’s book, all of which have caused a backlash in various communities, are unabashedly directed at a mainstream audience. Let’s face it: Lesbian For A Year, is not a book for lesbians, many of whom would argue that their same-sex attraction is not something that can be adopted and discarded over the space of a calendar period.

This is lesbianism (if it’s even that) as spectacle. Lesbianism as freakshow, for straight people. But this book, by someone who doesn’t, in the end, identify as a lesbian, was published by a relatively mainstream publisher, and gained enormous attention, widespread reviews, etc.

Which book about lesbian experience, or bisexuality, or a woman’s queerness, by a woman who identifies as queer, have you read recently? Has received as much hype and attention? Has entered the mainstream (in Australian reviewing and discussion, at least)?

How authentic is this book, as a representation of lesbianism?

This book infuriated me. Just the title was enough to make me see red. Because this is a book about a kind of experiential tourism that presumes that ‘dabbling’ in something without ever losing your sense of yourself as a tourist, is at all equivalent to living the life that you put on.

CEOs who spend a night sleeping rough do not suddenly have a deep, abiding, nuanced or authentic understanding of what it is to be homeless.

College students who spend their summers volunteering in third world orphanages do not develop a deep, authentic understanding of what it is to be a third world orphan.

That CEO has a healthy bank account, a mobile phone, a home he can return to at any time. A job for which he is probably overpaid. A car. Respect. And, probably/possibly, the admiration of those who consider his tokenistic gesture ‘courageous’ or somehow ennobling, while considering the homeless person they pass on the way to work every morning an inconvenient eyesore. Pitiable. A failure.

Imagination is [not] more important than knowledge

I have seen people argue that writers of fiction must be allowed the prerogative of using their imagination to ‘fill in the gaps’ between their own experience, and those of the characters they write.

But imagination is not–not nearly–enough.

A truly ethical literature arises, I think, only from a deep and considered exercise of BOTH imagination AND knowledge. And some knowledge, it must be said, can only–at this point in history–come from experience. Or from listening.

Some experiences, some identities, some characters, are not accessible through imagination alone. And some identities are not sufficiently known, not sufficiently shared, for you to be able to know them. Not now, perhaps not in your lifetime, perhaps never.

For this reason, as well, it is important not to appropriate the voices and identities of those who have, repeatedly and over centuries, been silenced, obliterated, and erased. But to listen to them speak their own stories. To read their words. Actively. Not just in order to seek some knowledge you can use.

We must learn to listen as a great teacher told me I must learn to listen. Patiently and with strong attention. We must not, while listening, be preparing our response. Our counter-argument. Our reframing and quotation and appropriation. Our own story about them.

We must listen. We must step aside. We must make room.

Finally (though I have SO MUCH MORE to say), I wanted to share a couple of things that Nisi Shawl said in a recent interview *. These comments are about diversity in the fields of Science Fiction and Fantasy, but are equally true, I believe, of writing and publishing more generally:

… people are being excluded from representation in the genre. This isn’t necessarily conscious or deliberate. Recovering from it will have to be both. If SFF is to become more inclusive, it’s going to take actual work, and it’s not going to be an easy or comfortable process.

later in the same interview she offers some astute advice:

My one piece of advice would be to listen. Listen to those writing from inside that ‘other’ voice. Listen to their audiences. Listen to those trying to promote them. Listen to those who read you. Listen to those who refuse to.

If I could give a second piece of advice to those who want to write the other it would be not to shrink from criticism.

[1] Yes, I know that Shriver identifies as a woman, but that doesn’t make her an ally or even a feminist. In fact, in many public speeches and writings, she has revealed his disdain for women-as-a-group, and feminism, particularly post-colonial feminism or any other feminism that doesn’t actively exclude queer people and/or people of colour.

[2] At least four other English-language lesbian novels were first published in 1928, though none sold as well, were as controversial, or were as widely discussed at the time. They were Elizabeth Bowen’s The Hotel, Djuna Barnes’s Ladies Almanack, Compton Mackenzie’s Extraordinary Women, and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.

Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s excellent, slim book ‘Writing the Other: A Practical Approach’ (published by Aqueduct Press) is an excellent resource for writers wanting some practical ideas about how to approach writing about characters from diverse backgrounds in terms of race, class, gender, ability, etc.


    • zooniecait
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    • September 12, 2016

    What I'm finding frustrating here is that I can't find a copy of Shriver's speech anywhere, and as usual, t'internet is rushing to judgement without actually knowing how she was talking about these subjects. For me, I think the creative experience of being a fiction author must, by necessity include writing about what you don't know, from the point of view of believable characters within that cultural/social experience. I can start to cite authors but it's a ridiculous task.If one to argue from an extreme, then a children's author could not write from the point of view of a cat. Now, that is as absurd, to me, a position to argue from, as is the one which *I believe* but lack of evidence precludes me from being certain, that Shriver was suggesting: that 'becoming' any character is within the domain of the author and therefore a wholly creative act. Did she talk about research and coming to a fuller understanding of the life experience of that person? Or at the very least, someone whose life experiences may be similar to those being experienced by the character? To my mind, the answer is between Shriver's position as reported, and Yassmin Abdel-Magied's. If I have what I believe to be an amazing tale which is beginning to form, I demand the right to be able to write about the characters therein, whether they be Inuits peoples, white French villagers in WW2, black South African children in the 1950's.... However, it is also incumbent upon me as a writer to research the living hell out of the context, with people as close to that context as possible *and write an afterword* in which the people who inspired you and gave you the insight to create in a fully rounded way are credited, links to interesting sources are shared, etc. When William Sutcliffe wrote "The Wall", an excellent YA novel I've read aloud to my son, he went out of his way to explain context, give links to suitable charities, and show how much he had invested in the story. It is of course, the case that Palestinian, and indeed, Jewish authors should also have the opportunity to have YA novels published about the experience of the Israeli occupation. However, for me that is a slightly different debate. The "Check your privilege" line is a depressingly kneejerk response which seeks to, bizarrely, silence voices,where in fact *everyone's* voices should be heard. It is absolutely the case that there is institutionalised, unconscious racism, disablist prejudice and heteronormative bias in... all of us, regardless of who we are, publisher or reader. Part of confronting that is to celebrate all voices. Part of the responsibility of the author is not to shy from, but embrace the responsible evolution of the publishing industry - and encourage readers to look beyond 'the usual', by educating themselves, and their purchasers. So in a very annoying way, I'm sure, I can see merit in trying not to kneejerk here, and am apparently sitting slap bang on the fence, but, it is a listening and evolving fence (but please, let's get the transcript, and debate from source?).

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      • September 13, 2016

      Hi Cait, and thanks for dropping by and sharing your thoughts :) I don't think anyone is arguing that fiction writers cannot write about characters who don't share their identity. Although Shriver did speak AS IF this is the case. As I said, this is a straw man argument: it's an argument in which you speak as if someone is saying something outrageous, but slightly related to their point, and then argue against it. Even her introductory reference point, which was about students who were criticised for ethnically insensitive behaviour (ie: racism), was a story about students at a US College being held accountable for their actions, not about people who'd being stopped from acting in the first instance. And no context was given: none of the background to that story, which was about attempts to curb racism on a campus where hostility between various ethnic groups had become toxic, and even violent. Perhaps the response, which was merely to engage in careful debate with affected students, was not one you agree with, but as the president of the college, Clayton Rose, said at the time: It’s a systemic issue. Bowdoin may be a more diverse school, and that’s great, but it has to be about more than just numbers. These students need to feel welcome. Anyway, sorry, I know you weren't there and don't have all the detail you need to really grapple with what Shriver actually said. My response here is really only partly about her statements, and much more about the broad issue of who gets written about, and by whom, and what kind of ethical considerations we can make as writers around those issues. I'm curious that you say you 'demand the right' to be able to write whatever character you wish (I thought I said quite clearly in my blog post that nobody is stopping you, or any other writer from writing whatever, and whoever, you like :)). You certainly have that right, but others have the right to respond if you share that work publicly, and some of those responses might be critical of an author's approach, no matter how careful they are to research their character or cite sources in an afterword. As Nisi says, if you are one of those who wants to write about Others, probably need to be prepared to receive criticism, and not shrink from it. Again, thanks for commenting! PS: Haven't seen a transcript. The BWF say they don't have one, and it's unclear whether Shriver will provide one. She has written elsewhere, however, about her views on these things, and others. You could google her and find a slew of articles she's written about representations and race, gender, class, fat, etc.

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      • September 13, 2016

      Dear Cait (and anyone else who's reading). The Guardian have just published the transcript of Shriver's speech, which you can read online here. I've also edited my post to include a link to the same transcript.

  • ZoonieCait: Lionel Shriver's speech is here https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/sep/13/lionel-shrivers-full-speech-i-hope-the-concept-of-cultural-appropriation-is-a-passing-fad?CMP=share_btn_fb

  • […] diminishing concern for research, it’s all about ‘what we can get away with’. Nike Sulway talks about appropriating queer culture and experience on her blog. I agree with her argument that fictional experience of minority (in my […]

  • […] Rather, writers in positions of privilege are encouraged to think critically about how this shapes their writing. Novelist Jim C Hines argues that engaging in a process of scrutiny actually creates better writers. Privileged writers could also consider how to support and help amplify the voices of diverse writers, who experience publishing bias and lack of access to writing opportunities. […]

    • Brooke
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    • September 29, 2016

    Did you actually read my book or did you base your opinion on what other people wrote about said book? How is my experience, which I 100% lived and continue to grapple with years later, remotely comparable to someone appropriating another culture? You may not like the title or the cover - and if you are familiar with the book publishing process you'll understand the cover has jack all to do with the author - but does it make the experience of me exploring my sexuality any less valid? And frankly, I'd love to know how you came to the conclusion it gained "enormous attention". Apart from a backlash from the lesbian community based on the fact I wrote it without confirming to a gender studies dictated tone of voice expected from literature tackling queer related subject matter, it barely caused a ripple.

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      • September 30, 2016

      Dear Brooke, I'm sorry that my response to your work is upsetting for you. This particular post was written in a rage, and mostly not about or in response to your work, in particular, but in response to a debate about the politics of appropriation, of culture/race, yes, but also of queer identities. I understand that your work is memoir, and that your experience is yours. It's incredibly brave of you to have written your story and shared it with the world. I do have issues with it, and I've expressed them here, so I understand that you read this post as part of the 'backlash' from the queer community that you've struggled with. I said some tough things, and some not-so-kind ones. And for that lack of balance or generosity of spirit I'm sorry. I would never say that your experience of your own sexuality is invalid, or less valid than another person's. Or that you don't have a right to write and publish your story. I think it was really brave of you to share the story of such an intimate part of your life with the world. At the same time, however, publishing a work is a public activity. An entry into a centuries-long conversation, and while you have every right to publish your work and tell your story, I also have a right, as a reader, to respond to that work. As Nisi said, and I quoted at the end of my post, one of the things we need to be prepared for whenever we publish is criticism/feedback. Good and bad. Tough and kind. I know only too well how tough negative feedback can be, and I hope you find the strength and grace you need to deal with it the best way you can.

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