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One of the hardest things in writing is being honest with yourself and, much more importantly, your writing.

The problem is sending your writing out into the world, where the following will judge it:

  • family
  • friends
  • peers
  • the reading public
  • critics.

These forces influence the writer in different ways.

Some of my books have heavy sex scenes. I often wonder how my family feels about me producing those. Do they walk around thinking, Wow, he’s really depraved? Any number of elements in a story could stun, repulse, or frighten a family member who thought they knew the writer.

I think this sits at the forefront of a lot of writers’ minds – not the sex scenes, but that something they write could generate the sort of reaction. Because the writer’s then afraid of facing that reaction (or the reactor), they can write through a filter that dilutes their message, and keeps their relationship with the reactor safe.

Friends can fall into the same category, although some may encourage the writer to be more daring – or as daring as possible. Daring doesn’t mean being shocking, though. It just means being open, honest, and vulnerable. In Just Another Week in Suburbia Casper breaks down and cries on the floor. In August Falling, August – filled with self-pity – ensconces himself in the bathtub and threatens to take his own life. I wondered how people who knew me would respond to (me) writing those types of emotional reactions (especially as a man).

Peers can be daunting. Among writers I consider friends are Ryan O’Neill (winner of the 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction for Their Brilliant Careers); A.S. Patrić (winner of the 2016 Miles Franklin for Black Rock, White City); Laurie Steed, author of the heartrending You Belong Here, whose writing wisdom, experience, and advice is highly sought in the literary community (and who, I have no doubt, will one day win an award of some magnitude); and Laura Elvery, who’s won the Josephine Ulrick Short Story Prize, the Overland Short Story Prize, regularly shortlists in competitions everywhere because she is such a great writer, and her collection – Trick of the Light – is currently being popularly received.

I doubt any Prime Minister knows me or any of my work (although the joke may be on them, since I hardly know who the Australian Prime Minister is at any given moment); that Just Another Week in Suburbia (which was submitted to the Miles Franklin) is probably now a doorstop in the office of some Miles Franklin judge; that – while I do value my skill as a structural editor – the literary community knows me as that scruffy guy who often wears a beanie and looks a little bit scary to approach; and in regards to competitions, my greatest achievement is winning Second Prize in a beauty contest playing Monopoly.

It’s a long, long, dark shadow, and you can’t help but compare and yearn. I think that’s natural. Sometimes, it makes me wonder if I could ever write something a judge (or panel of judges) would consider important.

While my books haven’t become bestsellers, or even moderate sellers (and I don’t know what one rung down is), they generally have received a good response from most of the reading public – not all, because’s that unrealistic. A writer – or artist of any kind – will never please everybody. But as a writer, you want to find your place, and I think most writers would like that place to be expansive.

I’m still trying to find my place, because it seems (given the reaction from some in the know) that I’m trying to write to a non-existent genre, or invent a new genre – literary fiction bloke-lit: that is, men going through issues, dealing with their vulnerability, and trying to find their place in the world. I didn’t set out to write that. It’s just given my own history of anxiety and depression, exploring the way people’s minds work – especially under everyday pressures – is compelling. But I think books have done this before. JD Salinger’s classic (and one of my favourite books), The Catcher in the Rye, is all about this – a kid facing his own vulnerability and trying to find where he belongs.

Finally, I’m left with the critics. The bulk of reviews for my latest, August Falling, have been strong, and it’s pleasing to see that the critics have appreciated what the book’s doing. A handful of critics haven’t. It makes me wonder if I could write a book that would ever please them, or whether that would be selling out. Well, of course it would be. You shouldn’t write to please a critic who hasn’t liked your work. You should aspire to punch their head in. Well, maybe not. But it would make a great scene for Hank Moody in Californication.

All these influences surround a writer, and tug at the writer, and – sometimes unwittingly – influence their writing. It’s hard to find and stay true to your own unique voice and the story you want to tell.

But I’ll keep trying, and let whatever happens around me (and my writing) fall where it may.

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When you’re published, it’s usually a good idea to not read the reviews. That means don’t stalk a reviewing platform such as Goodreads. The logic is that no matter how many good reviews you have, you’ll focus on the bad ones. It’s human nature.

Avoiding reviews is great in theory. And I have a number of published author friends who advise me not to check out the reviews, while I advise them not to check out the reviews.

And then we check out the reviews.

I envy people who can just not worry about it. But it seems most can’t.

Writing is intensely personal. You have this idea you want to develop into a story, and you want to share that story with the world. Finding positive reviews is both gratifying and euphoric for 5.37 seconds. Unfortunately, negative reviews have a greater impact. Attacking somebody’s work is like attacking the author. I imagine it’s the way a parent would feel if somebody told them their kid’s an idiot.

I break up bad reviews into five categories:

    Valid and Constructive Criticism
    With some bad reviews, the reviewer provides legitimate constructive feedback as to why the story doesn’t work for them. I recall in one of my early reviews for Just Another Week in Suburbia, the reviewer asked some questions about the construction of the world. I believed most of the answers were in the text, but it did make me think that sometimes I might need to set up and explain some things better.

    These reviews can be fantastic, as well as learning experiences.

     
    The ‘Not For Me’ Review
    My friend, Ryan O’Neill, got a one-star review for Their Brilliant Careers – the book which won the 2017 Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction. I messaged the reviewer and queried why they didn’t like the book – I was just curious (and have done this occasionally with friends’ books). The reviewer told me the book was too ‘high brow’ and they’d stopped reading it at page 12.

    I have no problem with readers abandoning books, or not clicking with a story – it’s going to happen.

    However, I don’t think that reader should be entitled to rate and/or review the book, then. They just haven’t read enough of it to give it a fair assessment.

     
    The ‘It Wasn’t What I Thought It Was Going to Be’ Review
    A friend got a review that labelled his book as ‘grim and bleak’. The problem is that his book is grim and bleak. It’s meant to be. That’s the story.

    Reading the review, it felt as if the reader had picked up his book expecting it to be a light-hearted romcom and, when it wasn’t, they slammed the book.

    Again, I don’t think this is fair. The book should be judged on what it is, what it sets out to do, and how well it accomplishes that – not on how it fails to live up to a misperception.

     
    The Aristocratic Review
    Books are important. They can do – and provide – so many things, from recreation to education to enlightenment. That’s all great. But some reviews read as if the reviewer has condemned a book for its lack of literary ennoblement, as if the reviewer is the guardian of some literary elitism and has deemed the book unworthy. Then comes the criticisms, which might seem valid but are masked under that agenda of condemnation.

    These reviews can be nasty. And totally misguided.

     
    The Troll Review
    Unfortunately, some people use the net as a shield to just be negative, and try to stir trouble.

I believe reviewing is a tremendous responsibility. Somebody has gone to a lot of effort to create something. Now that doesn’t indemnify that work from criticism, but it should at least entitle that the criticism be thoughtful, valid and justified.

I generally don’t let (bad) reviews bother me anymore (although I might joke otherwise). Every artform is predominantly subjective. Obviously, there’s a point something fails to work, and that piece is universally criticised. But, otherwise, we all have different tastes, standards, and expectations, so we’re all going to see things differently.

I saw enough good reviews for JAWiS that they offset the negative reviews and taught me to accept the greater opinion. Still, sometimes the negativity invites questions, such as …

    Q. Could the book have been better?
    A. Well, probably not at the time I was writing it. But as a writer, I’m always developing, and would do things differently today than I did yesterday. (Of course, that doesn’t necessarily equate with ‘better’.)

    Q. Am I happy with the book?
    Yes. Even if I could do better today, I’m still happy with the book that’s out there.

Outside of reviews, I’ve also had people contact me privately – via email, or through social media – telling me they enjoyed it. I’m grateful for the positive feedback it and August Falling have received.

That eclipses the bad.

It doesn’t mean the bad doesn’t sting, or isn’t remembered – particularly when it borders on vindictive.

But that might be a rant for another time.