114,287

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.
 

79,121

Last Wednesday, I emceed the launch of Blaise van Hecke’s memoir The Road to Tralfamadore is Bathed in River Water. Here’s some of the praise for my efforts:

    ‘One of the unheralded emcees in entertainment today.’
          – Variety

    ‘A delight from start to finish.’
          – Oprah Winfrey

    ‘On this performance, surely an outside chance to host the 2019 Oscars.’
          – Empire

But that’s hardly surprising. However, this is a blog not about emceeing, but about memoir and autobiography. (If you’re wondering what the difference is between autobiography and memoir, an autobiography might be about somebody’s life, while a memoir will be about a certain time or a certain thing in that person’s life.)

When I subcontracted as an editor a quintillion years ago, I saw a lot of memoir and autobiography. A lot. And that’s great, because I believe everybody does have a story to tell. But a story is more than the sum of one’s life.

One thing I’d see popularly were autobiographies that were episodic – each chapter would be about something different. There’d be no chronology, so it could make them confusing to read.

Other autobiographies were sprawling tales of the years. They didn’t frame a story. They were just a recount of everything that had happened in that person’s life – and sometimes, what had happened before they were born, as the parents’ lives were also explored for context.

I love reading good memoirs and autobiographies, because what makes people become who they are fascinates me.

The best memoir I’ve read is tennis legend Andre Agassi’s Open, which looks at Agassi’s upbringing, his career, and him finding the person who he wanted to be – there’s a definitive arc there.

That’s important in memoir/autobiography/biography. What’s the story about? Agassi’s is about him taking responsibility for his own life – it mightn’t sound like much, but given he had a tennis-obsessed dad who drove him as a child, and then people around him who took care of him, it’s gratifying when Agassi claims that ownership.

Agassi also holds nothing back. I admire him for baring all, because a lot of his earlier life isn’t pretty, and some of it is vain (e.g. did you know that great mop of hair he paraded as a young tennis player was actually a wig?). But it’s that journey that makes him who he is. Unfortunately, a lot of memoirs – especially of celebrities – just become press kits. The celebrity is tentative to open themselves up, because it could invite criticism, or tarnish their reputation. So instead, the stories are designed to sell them.

When I serialised my blog The Other Me, it was about my battles with neuroses, and how I’ve come to something of a truce with them. I hoped each instalment held nothing back (at least in relation to me). The purpose of The Other Me was to show others suffering silently with neuroses that they’re not the only ones, and it doesn’t have to shape their lives the way it did mine as a teenager, as well as in my twenties. That was my story.

If you’re going to write a memoir/autobiography, think about what your story is.

Blaise’s The Road to Tralfamadore is Bathed in River Water explores her childhood growing up on something of a hippy commune, Tralfamadore, in the 1970s. The book employs a series of self-contained vignettes that can be ethereal, but they engage because each has an arc, they contribute to a greater story, and she’s open about her life – all this viewed through a child’s eyes of wonder.

She has some strong puffs on the back of the hardcover, too:

    ‘A beautifully rendered portrait of a place and time, a family and a community. Nostalgic, tender – and yet clear-eyed.’
          – Inga Simpson
          Understory: a life with trees

    ‘I love this book. It is at once magical and real, both earthed and enchanting. It captures the innocence and spontaneity of a child’s view of the world, tempered by the child’s wry, sharp, affectionate observations on the antics of the wayward, loving, flawed, yet wise adults that weave in and out of her life. It was a joy to read.’
          – Arnold Zable.
          Writer, novelist and storyteller.

    ‘A dreamy excursion into an amazing way of life that captivates and mesmerises, and will challenge everything you know.’
          – Lazaros Zigomanis
          Pride

That’s some heavy-hitting endorsement. Well, Simpson and Zable are heavy-hitters. I don’t know about Lazaros.

Anyway, those who know me know I don’t freely endorse things. As I’ve grown older, I’ve also grown the teensiest weensiest bit intolerant with stories (in whatever form, be they movies, television, plays, books, mime, etc.) that I don’t think are particularly good (especially if they’re getting raves), but here’s one I’m heartily recommending.

Pick it up and give it a read if you get the chance.