The bitterly disappointed reader — who’s to blame?

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Here’s the problem:

You, the reader, want someone to write a book that resonates with you. It’s all about you!

Except, sadly, it’s not. It never will be.

Writers, certainly of non-fiction, write what they know, how they think, what they’ve studied or taught, how they were raised.

Every single one of us writes through multiple filters: race, age, gender, nationality, religion, political beliefs, income level, ethnicity.

Then we have to pass the gatekeepers of agents, editors, publishers and their sales and marketing staff. And, oh yeah, the retailers who only order our books on commission, shipping them right back within six weeks unless the merch is moving.

So when readers expect writers to write in a way they find cosy and comforting, a peculiar and somewhat infantile rage often emerges when some of them, inevitably, find our work disappointing.

“It’s not what I expected!” they wail.

Well, what did you expect?

Some readers who feel a writer has failed them not only dislike our books — they dislike us personally.

Which, while I love the passionate involvement readers can have with our books, is also a little weird — I don’t loathe Alexander Payne as a human being if I hated (which I didn’t) — his new film, “The Descendants” or his hit “Sideways.”

Separating the creative product from its producer seems a challenge these days.

I’ve seen this in four instances and I think it really bears discussion and reflection.

The first, of course, is the huge best-seller “Eat, Pray, Love” written by a childless, educated white woman who left her suburban marriage to travel the world in search of herself.

The very idea! Jowls shook worldwide in horrified indignation. How dare she…pursue…pleasure?!

If I pick up Dickens or Balzac or John Grisham or David Sedaris, I know what I’m getting into. I’m an adult making an informed choice. If I loathe the book — its tone, content, voice, pacing, dialogue, plot (or absence of same), well, tant pis! It’s the price of admission, kids. Just because it’s for sale doesn’t guarantee it’s great or that it will make me happy.

So when this blogger was chosen for Freshly Pressed, I took immediate exception to her decision to tear up the book she was reading because she disliked the author’s point of view.

Part of her objection was the privileged background of its author, Gretchen Rubin, whose father-in-law is the former secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin. Her book, “The Happiness Project,” has been a huge best-seller.

She is who she is.

I chose the cartoon of Popeye because I live and write by his motto: “I yam what I yam and that’s all I yam.”

Expecting any writer to write as if s/he were someone else you might have a beer with instead burdens even the smartest authors with an added hurdle to clear when trying to find and grow an audience.

Same criticism has followed Laura Vanderkam, a young Princeton grad whose third child’s arrival just preceded that of her third book. For a woman in her early 30s, that’s a whole pile ‘o achievement.

I know Laura personally. She’s privileged, well-educated, a driven, goal-oriented woman.

She is who she is, and whether you agree with her gogogogogogogogo mindset, her worldview inevitably colors how she thinks, the subjects that engage her and how she approaches them.

If you don’t share her worldview, you probably won’t enjoy her books either.

My memoir of working retail, “Malled”, has drawn some of the most vicious comments I have ever heard anywhere, including three years of relentless high school bullying.

“I actually started to hate her”, wrote one woman.

“Bitter, pretentious and lazy, lazy, lazy,” wrote another.

These are not book reviews, dear readers.

These are character assassinations, written under the soothing cloak of anonymity, and posted forevermore on — the place where would-be buyers, you know, make decisions about our work.

I can assure you, if someone stood outside my store or my home, shouting how nasty my food or products or service were, I’d take direct action.

But in this virtual world, where total strangers make snap decisions about who we are (based on — hello! — a deliberately chosen and heavily edited narrative voice), the real person behind the words on the page becomes some weird, annoying ghostly abstraction.

The writer you meet, certainly in non-fiction or memoir, is but one facet of that person. Judging and dismissing them with a sneer only reflects a sad lack of sophistication about what book-writing is.

My readers no more “know me” than someone who sits beside me on the subway for 30 minutes.

The next time you loathe a book — or love it — try to remember that a real person wrote it.

With their best intentions.

23 thoughts on “The bitterly disappointed reader — who’s to blame?

  1. I’ve always found it funny how being a great writer requires such utter perceptiveness and sensitivity, while getting published (and surviving the feedback) requires such a thick skin and “hear no evil” attitude. Sometimes, I wish that we could split the job in two…

    1. Well said! It takes a lot of guts to put it out there and at a certain point you have to just not care too much about the lousy reviews. My book has sold well, was optioned by CBS, picked for a paperback club selection and will be published in China this fall.

      It doesn’t take away the sting of the nastiest ad hominem attacks, but I think many of them are motivated by envy.

  2. As we discussed in the comments section of my blog, I agree that any narrative voice is one which is created by multiple entities (author, publisher, editor, etc.). I also made it quite clear in my post that I don’t dislike Gretchen Rubin, the person, because I don’t know her as a person. I’m quite familiar with Roland Barthes’ Death of the Author; I understand that the author and the voice are not one in the same.

    I was never setting out to write a book review, but rather I was writing about the process of moving toward an e-reader. If you read through the comments section, you will see that I told anyone who thought they would not enjoy the book to go out and read it for themselves. Of the 180 comments I received, most folks were not interested in discussing The Happiness Project, in praise or in critique. Most just wanted to share the texts that they have recently enjoyed reading.

    On a separate note, I am very sorry to hear that your memoir has “drawn some of the most vicious comments [you] have ever heard anywhere, including three years of relentless high school bullying.” That sounds horrendous and I applaud you for telling your story, despite what your readers might say. Remember that one only needs to have readers, and those readers don’t necessarily need to like you. What matters most is that you are part of the evolving conversation. Good luck to you and your memoir. I look forward to reading it.

    1. Thanks for clarifying that. No disrespect, but I did not read the 180 comments.

      You’re an educated reader with a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the enterprise. Most of the people I’m frustrated by have never *heard* of Barthes and have no idea what you’re talking about. Yet it’s often their loud, shrill voices that dominate and drown out those with something more useful to say, no matter how critical.

      I agree that readers don’t need to like me. But they do need to spread the word that my book is worth reading — and when it comes to memoir (the point of my post), they often take it terribly personally if you make them feel uncomfortable.

  3. That’s the terrible thing; people make first impressions based on your work, and their minds just close to you, like a jury making a snap decision in a serious trial.

    I was once a bit like that. Not in the extreme, like blasting people on the internet, but that’s what happens when closed minds get an idea into their head.

    It mightn’t even be based on the largest of margins. It might be some small thing. But that small thing becomes a mountain in their mind, and then that’s just the end.

  4. I become disappointed at times in reading some books but I can’t do anything about it. I can’t get my money back or rewrite the book. This is the reason why I just settle with paperback issues first then buy the hardbound if it’s worth it. Lesson? Be a discriminating reader.

    I don’t know why but I remembered the books written by Malcolm Gladwell on this post particularly The Outliers. I love that book.

    1. I agree that — by definition — some books are just not going to make you happy. (Nor are some films, meals, concerts, museum shows — anything cultural we choose to try. And there’s no refund for those either.)

      Libraries! Free ways to take an author for a test-drive.

      I agree that being discriminating is the way to go. The challenge now is whose opinion(s) to tru

      1. Yes, libraries! I forgot that. Sometimes, I end up buying books that I’ve read in the library.

        I’m still reading The Happiness Project. I admire the honest narrative tone of the book. Since it’s a memoir, I’ve lowered my expectations. Maybe I got influenced by the Freshly Pressed book review. So far, I appreciate the book.

  5. crgardenjoe

    I liked your post so much I’ve decided to get “Malled”–my son gave me a kindle and gift card for Christmas, so far I’ve just read free classics–yours will be the first purchased book I’ve read on it. Then again, since I’ve enjoyed your blog for a while, I don’t think I’m taking too big a chance. And, if I end up not liking the book, I promise I won’t think less of you as a person or a blogger!

    1. Cool!

      I’m honored and hope you enjoy it. It will be an odd experience, I imagine, now that you “know” me a bit from the blog. I think my only caveat, and it’s frustrating to admit, is there is some repetition in the book that we *should* have caught in editing. So when readers find it annoying, I agree!

      As for my chosen narrative voice, some people love it, some hate it. I have been really thrilled to get a lot of email from readers who work in retail, as managers or associates, who say it’s completely accurate from their perspective as well. Please feel free to email me privately and let me know what you think.

  6. This post of yours leaves me in a strange position. I have read your most recent book. You’ve asked me to review it on Amazon a couple of times and, now, I understand your anxiety. In the same vein, as a former retail manager – for many stores – before going to law school and graduating on to better and less-graceful things, I can only imagine the criticism you have received from readers. To be clear, I haven’t read the reviews of your book. That said, I can imagine that those readers who have worked in the retail industry for years may have perceived you to be elitist and oh-so-white-bread. I’m a white, educated woman and I perceived your book that way. You held exactly one – ONE – part-time retail job in your life and wrote a book about it. Some people are going to feel that you don’t have to right to tell their story.

    Those of us who did this full time – for years – are going to naturally feel that you are naive in some of your assertions – much as you feel I am naive in my opinions about my desired profession as a writer. Still, I give you the benefit of the doubt as someone who experienced something, recognized the wrong in it and strove to make it better. I give you credit for that. However, as someone who spent considerably more time in that world before moving on to something better, I can understand why you may have received criticism. I’m not here to criticize you. I’m here to thank you. Regardless of your inexperience in the retail world compared to millions of others, you mean well. Your intentions are good. People need to give you a break. You can’t help it that you grew up in a privileged world of boarding schools and summer camps (yes, that’s how the rest of us view it), but you dipped your toe into our world and discovered it was unpleasant. And every book that is written about how difficult that world is benefits us. So, I don’t complain. I appreciate your time with the convicts, selling jackets and dealing with the overcrowded stockroom. Welcome to my world. Except we both escaped and others have not. That is the fight that is worth fighting. Forget the negative reviews and remember the reason you wrote the book. Fight the fucking fight, already. You’ve earned it.

    1. I am aware that some of the people who hate Malled (which is normal) are people who are angry that I dipped in (and quickly out) of a low-wage job they cannot (yet) escape or maybe it’s one they love. My goal, as you can see, is NOT to sneer at anyone working retail; if your work is legal, do it! Take the cash and run! But my goal was to call out working conditions and corporate behaviors I found, and still find, abhorrent.

      The reason I even *bothered* to mention a privileged background (not that it’s doing me any good these days) is ONLY for context, yet, that, too has deeply pissed off some people who think I am asserting I’m “better than.” I did the job for 27 months. There are many people who quit retail work within days, regardless of their circumstances growing up.

  7. You know, I think the problem is that you wrote what you admittedly call a “memoir.” When people read a memoir, they perceive it to be a narrative about you and your experiences. They’re expecting to learn something about you and see the world through your eyes. Yet, in your blog, you state that you wrote this book in “a deliberately chosen and heavily edited narrative voice,” one which is apparently not truly your own. As the author of a memoir, I think you’ve really got to take a little ownership of the fact that you CHOSE to come across as you did – and take responsibility for the result: a lot of people didn’t like it.

    You complain that the readers are attacking YOU, the author, instead of simply disliking your book – but your book is supposed to be about YOU. It’s called a MEMOIR. Even though I recognize that the subject of a memoir is still a literary character of sorts, as the author, it is your job to make that character likable. Perhaps if you’d said somewhere on your book flap, “This book has been written in a deliberately chosen and heavily edited narrative voice. Any similarities to the author are purely coincidental. In case I’m not being clear, when you finish this book, you won’t know me any better than if you had sat next to me on a subway for 30 minutes,” your readers would have been less disappointed and not lashed out at you personally.

    In an interview with WOW! magazine, Judith Barrington, author of perhaps the best book ever written on memoir-writing, Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, stated that the most important elements of a well-written memoir are, “[h]onesty, enough distance from the story to craft it as literature, beautiful and rhythmic use of language, a likeable narrative voice.” If you are going to request that readers consider that “a real person wrote” a memoir before deciding whether they like or loathe it, then I suggest that you introduce them to that real person in said memoir. The onus is on you, as the author, to make yourself relatable, engaging and likable – particularly when that’s clearly very, very important to you. It’s obvious that you’ve taken the criticism about Malled very personally; perhaps memoir is simply NOT your genre. Either way, instead of lashing out against your readers, try to learn from their comments. Maybe there’s something there.

    1. This is not the place for me to endlessly and publicly debate or defend the value of my book, nor will I. It’s been well-reviewed and sold well.

      The point of this post was to raise a larger and more general question about how literally some readers choose to react to some books and to some authors — as they did to Liz Gilbert, Laura and other writers.

      Where is it written in stone that a memoir author has to be likeable? Relatable, yes. I can think of several memoirs where I found the narrator/writer a deeply unpleasant person but I read it anyway and figured, well — as I said initially — that’s just who s/he is. I don’t have to like them, I just have to find their story compelling enough to finish it, as I did. I think it’s setting an absurd standard to “like” every author or their narrative voice or dismiss them out of hand. Some of the most compelling stories are told by people whose personalities are pretty repugnant.

      In any case, what you’ve chosen to call “lashing out” is, to many writers I know, a fair response to some of the personal attacks laid down at amazon and elsewhere, none of which really allow authors the chance to rebut or respond, unless there has been a libelous remark. It’s not an issue unique to me.

  8. I’m familiar with being on the receiving end of scathing criticism. Every semester, two courses of college students respond anonymously to surveys designed to evaluate my teaching ability. Some of the nasty comments students write sound like they’re living in a ‘virtual world.’ I enjoy teaching and I work hard at it. The mean-spirited remarks were incredibly discouraging at first and sometimes it’s still difficult not to take the criticism personally. I’m becoming convinced that providing honest, critical, and constructive feedback is a dying art. It’s something that needs to be taught. Until my students learn it (we discuss this explicitly in class and I try to model it in my comments on their work) I’m working on not being too attached to these “results.”

    1. Good to hear from you again!

      You make such a great point…I think “people” with “feelings” have become, as I wrote, some vague abstraction, so when someone really punches you verbally — and anonymously — they seem to have little notion that a real person is going to read it. I find it funny when people say “Oh, don’t take it personally” as though we’re not invested in excellence, as though someone else created the content and shared it. When I sold T-shirts, sure! I didn’t make or design them. And taking it personally doesn’t mean weeping into your pillow. It means…listening and trying to make sense of it.

      I am all for listening to thoughtful and constructive insight — without which i could not have written two books, which were *extremely* closely reviewed by my agent and editor long before a reader saw them. My five “first readers” of the manuscript were all very helpful and their critiques, no doubt, strengthened the material and showed me all sorts of issues I had missed or not considered. But I chose them because they know how to offer useful insights, not just a “Good job!” or ” This sucks.”

  9. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with this post. In my experience there’s no question that some readers – and, sadly, professional reviewers – conflate the voice of a book with that of the author.I’ve also found that some insist the author is not only 100 percent responsible for the entire content, but that the book represents the exclusive sum total of their skills and knowledge. Thus any omission or error that can be wrung from the text becomes a weapon with which to prove ignorance and thus justify a blanket denial of the skills, character etc of the unfortunate author. Sad but true.

    Part of the motive, I think, is that these people look on anothers’ book as a threat – either to their own world view, or as an intrusion into what they regard as ‘their’ territory. Thus it becomes a personal attack on them, in their view, which must be avenged in kind.

    My own experience of this hasn’t been great. I’ve had to put up with relentless assaults on one book after another of mine in New Zealand from the academic history crowd in whose territory I happen to write, including ad hominem assaults on my professionalism and character that are flat untrue. This has come unprovoked from strangers who don’t have the integrity to approach me personally, and who I am told are professionals and thus above criticism. Fair enough – tells me what sort of people I am dealing with. All this, incidentally, is from a crowd whose own prosperity, sabbaticals, paid writing time and so forth, is a product of my taxes. Whereas I have to sell my own titles to publishers on personal merit alone and my sole return on that work is royalties on sales. Go figure.

    Realistically, I know that this sort of circus performance is not limited to New Zealand’s miniscule academic environment. Sad indictment of a darker side of the human condition, unfortunately; but there is always hope that there are wiser and more adult people in the wider world who don’t bite back – who enjoy the stuff authors produce for what it is, don’t view it as an invasion or as a threat to their own world-view. The Happy Reader.

    Great post – good on you for outlining the problem that dogs so many writers and sticking to your guns over it! And thanks for sharing your experiences.

    Matthew Wright

    1. Thanks for such a thoughtful comment.

      I think there is ignorance, (and wilful ignorance), of how books actually end up for sale somewhere — and I suspect that self-publishing is only exacerbating this trend since, now, “anyone can write a book.” Anyone can paint a lady in a robe looking somber — but she ain’t the Mona Lisa! I am damn grateful for the very tough agent and equally tough editor I had for “Malled” and hope to work with the same editor again for that reason; she very much helped me with structuring the material. Those who understand this industry know that NO author gets a book commercially published without a LOT of other eyes on them and their work first — but those people aren’t visible, so their hard work often remains unrecognized as well.

      Sorry that NZ is so nutty in this regard, but it does not surprise me at all. I left Canada (30 m people) for the U.S. (300 m people) partly for this reason. Much as I did not enjoy having to re-start my career after 10 years, it has given me a much wider and looser playing field. I also have written on two national American subjects that, for a variety of reasons, few people had touched, so whether people like or dislike my work, it’s hard to attack it for being derivative or treading on toes.

  10. Great post and really interesting comments. First off – it makes me want to read your book! Second I appreciate the spirit with which you are responding to comments. As a non-writer/writer (if that make sense – writing, but will never make a career of it) I appreciate the entire process that you describe and put into action. Thanks.

    1. Thanks…I hope you enjoy Malled…let me know either way!

      I think many people are quite curious to know how book-writing/selling/promotion really works. There are a lot of fantasies about it.

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