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With the release of August Falling imminent, I’m bracing myself for the reviews.

In theory, as an author it’s best to stay away from reviews. You can have ninety-nine great reviews, and one bad one, and you’ll focus on that bad one. Also, places that invite mass reviews become an open slather. While there are some thoughtful and constructive reviews, there’s also some that aren’t, or books that are rated lowly unfairly.

For example, a friend’s book got one star. One star. Must’ve been a shocker, right? But I found out that the reviewer read only twelve pages and felt the book was ‘too high brow’ (the reviewer’s words), so she ditched it. Reading one/thirtieth of a book should exclude you from being allowed to review or rate it.

I’ve read reviews where people have condemned books for not being what they wanted it to be. Oh, I thought this was going to be a romcom, but it turned out to be dark. How is that the book’s fault? The reviewer has prejudiced their expectations, and smashed the story for being about something else. (The italicised section is not an exact quote – I took liberties, so that book, review, and reviewer may all remain anonymous.)

I have also recently seen books pilloried for their formatting. This book didn’t work on my Kindle, so one star. What the fuck? How is a book not working on an e-reader the fault of the book, the author, or the editor? How can that book be honestly rated?

Surely reviewing platforms should have a ‘DNF’ (Did Not Finish) option that excludes rating a book. That’s only fair on the book and the author.

For example, here’s a so-so fact: I’ve never finished The Great Gatsby, which is considered a classic. I got about halfway through and just couldn’t connect to it. Sometimes you don’t connect with books just because you’re tastes aren’t aligned. Sometimes, it’s not the right time to connect with a book. So I put TGG aside, thinking that one day I would pick it up and give it another shot. On what I have read, I would never, ever rate it or review it.

It’s also important in the appreciation of any artform – books, film/television, music – to try to recognise what the creator’s intention is, and review and rate it on how successfully it’s achieved that intent. If possible, step outside your own tastes when reviewing or rating a book, e.g. there’s been plenty of books I just haven’t connected with, but where I recognise that they’re well-written and well-plotted. My disconnect is a matter of personal taste, rather than a criticism of the writing.

If a reviewer goes in with prejudices – because it’s not the sort of thing they’d usually indulge in, because their expectations and/or preconceptions aren’t met, or just because they want to cut down something that has been getting good reviews – then the reviews are going to be skewed.

I know a number of authors who refuse to go anywhere near reviewing platforms, out of fear how negative reviews will affect them. But I also know reviewers who tiptoe through these platforms, looking for the gratification of a satisfying review.

As somebody who’s done the latter, the gratification lasts about 3.5 seconds.

So what’s the best way to deal with bad reviews? Well, some reviews will contain justifiable criticism, which is always worth taking on board. One of the early reviews of Just Another Week in Suburbia asked some interesting questions about the construction of the premise, which I took on board for future writing. (I thought the answers could be inferred from the information available, but also appreciated that maybe their set-up could be a little more straightforward.)

But as for the bad reviews? The shockers?

Befriend the reviewer. Get to know them. Get to know their viewpoint. See where they’re coming from. Earn their trust. Go out for coffee. Have a chat. Find some common ground. Sprinkle some cyanide in their coffee when they’re not watching. Raise a toast. Drink. Bid them farewell. And feel a lot better.

Of course, I’m kidding.

Maybe.

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Year ago, I went back to school as a mature-age student to study writing and editing. Part of the course requirements, I found out, were classroom presentations and (at least) two public readings at an event the course hosted monthly. Both prospects horrified me. The course, however, understood that if you’re going to be a writer, you will at some point need to conduct yourself publicly, e.g. at a launch, or readings.

Come the night I had to read, I appeared calm – years of dealing with anxiety had taught me to hide what was going on inside, but I was terrified I would mess up, and grew short of breath (a common anxiety symptom for me). I kept psyching myself up, though. I kept telling myself I would be ‘fantastic’. Not ‘good’ or ‘okay’ or that everything would be ‘fine’. I had to aim high. If I missed, I would land thereabouts in the vicinity of ‘fantastic’. If I aimed moderately (e.g. okay) and missed, I would land in the region of ‘below average’ (ewww) or ‘terrible’.

In the end, I was good. Not brilliant or anything, but good, and that was enough for me. Best of all, nobody knew how nervous I had been.

Come the day of the class presentations, we (students) gathered in the hallway, waiting to be let into the auditorium. Another mature-age student sat on the floor, back against the wall, on the verge of the panic attack. I knelt by her and told her she would be fine. She responded, ‘Not everybody is as confident as you, Les.’

Ha. She had no idea what was going on inside my head.

Over the last thirty years (and more), I’ve dealt (on and off) with conditions such as anxiety, depression, and OCD. For about a five-year period I was agoraphobic, and struggled to get out of my safety zone. Even now if I go somewhere new, it rears up. So going into a course and fraternising with strangers, and then being required to present myself publicly was always going to be difficult, regardless how I conducted myself externally.

When I came out of the course, I’d developed a newfound confidence, and because of my background with neuroses pursued speaking opportunities first with SANE, and then with beyondblue. With everything I’d gone through, I figured I had something to offer others through lived experience.

I did a number of talks, always nervous early but eventually falling into a rhythm. My most difficult engagement was at Broadmeadows Police Station, where I talked in general about anxiety and depression in front of a group of detectives and uniformed officers. When I walked away from that, I told myself if I could do that talk, I could do anything.

Something I’ve learned – not only through my own journey in public speaking, but also in dealing with anxiety – is that it’s the pressure we put on ourselves that undoes us.

As far as public speaking/readings go, it’s that fear that we’re going to mess up, that people will think poorly of us, that we’ll be so embarrassed we’ll never be able to show our faces again.

My attitude to those fears – and others of their ilk – has become simply this: Who cares?

If we mess up, so what? For many, the first stumble lights the fuse to detonation. If I mess up now, I’ve learned to stop, reset, and continue as normal. If people think poorly of us, that’s more an indictment of them – that they’re laughing at somebody’s misfortune – than us. And if neither of those things matter (or anything along those lines), we shouldn’t be embarrassed. And even if we are, again, so what? There’s worse things in the world – illness, violence, poverty, etc.

In reality, reading in public is no different to reading aloud to ourselves. It’s not an audience who applies pressure. It’s ourselves, by introducing the belief that an audience is judging us. Once that pressure is removed – once we think, Who cares? – so is the self-judgement. And once that goes, public speaking/reading becomes simpler.

If you are somebody who grows nervous, think about it that way the next time an opportunity presents itself.

 
As an aside …
The date for the launch of August Falling has been set: Sunday, 2nd September, 2.00pm, at Buck Mulligan’s in Northcote. If you’re free I’d love for you to come along.

And if you’re not, I’d still love for you to come along.

(But being that it’s also Father’s Day that day, I’ll understand if you can’t.)