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 Amazon.com — 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.