Hey there, Author. How’s the book going?
The public reviews? The sales, the marketing, the royalties, the writing career in general? The back- and buttockbreaking toil of writing the great 21st century novel, for years and years, and then the hawking of your soul and the draining of your last reserves of enthusiasm and optimism in order to to sell it?
Good? It’s going good? Yeah? Great! You won’t mind atall what I’m going to say, then.
And that is: I’m sorry. Sorry my mood ruined any chance your book had of me thinking it was brilliant. Sorry I picked it up when it hadn’t a snowball’s chance of getting through to me. And sorry I doggedly persisted in reading it when my brain was about as receptive to fiction as a White House reporter with ethics.
Books, like seeds, might just fall on fallow ground
Most writers will tell you that they write for themselves, or they write because they just have to.
I reckon most writers actually write for an imagined audience who think we’re only brilliant and fabulous.
If we didn’t, none of us would write at all. After all, who amongst us would write for a moody cynic who thinks they want to be perfectly entertained, when in actual fact what they want is a big non-existent magic wand to undo the day they’ve just had?
All this came to mind recently because I’ve only recently returned to what I call “Proper Reading”, which is when I’m able to pick up a book without judgement, and read it in an amount of time reasonably short enough to allow the story to breathe.
When I can allow one chapter to flow into the next and the next, without the brain constantly asking “Aw feck, who’s he again? What year is it? And why is yer man wearing a toilet seat?”
Prior to this, the vast majority of books which came into my hands were doomed. Life was not conducive to good reading. I was working from and until stupid o’clock. Domestic tasks were glaring at me. I was tired and under stress. I was worried. Sometimes I was just plain angry. Stuff was going on, and stuff did not allow for fairytales.
Books got started and books got left. Most of us have To Be Read piles: I had a To Be Finished pile which toppled. And as the pile got bigger, the books in it started to look crappier.
Who would want to be an author whose baby got consigned to that pile?
The Irrefutable Scientific Research Part
The sad thing is that it wasn’t any of those authors’ fault. But I only realised this when I went on Amazon to check the reviews for a highly unusual book I’d finally and unusually enjoyed. At least 50% of the reviewers hadn’t agreed with me at all, at all. We disagreed on every single point to such an extent that I wondered – had we even read the same book?
I completed this utterly scientific study with a whole second specimen, and checked Amazon reviews for a book I thought I’d love, but didn’t so much. And yet so many of the reviews were breathlessly admiring. They seemed to particularly like the bits where I remembered putting it down. And then I remembered – I started reading that book when my Dad was sick. And no amount of magical realism was going to unreal that reality.
I thought back to previous books which were supposed literary marvels, lyrical and beautiful and sweet and funny and sad, and which left me cold.
I thought about books I had loved and recommended to people with my own breathless admiration, and with which they had struggled and strained, leaving them squinty-eyed each time they saw me thereafter.
I thought back to the books I thought would be one thing, only to be disappointed they weren’t, and thought about rejections which said that very thing to me. And then I wondered if perhaps it wasn’t actually my fault.
So while I’m apologising to authors, I’m also going to tell them to suck it up. A bad review can be merely a result of someone else’s bad day. Or a bad week, or month, or year. It could be down to a reader’s baby blues, breakup, bereavement, or battle.
Sure, it can be down to a bad book, too. But more often than not, books are just collateral damage in someone else’s house fire.
So look, I say too, Authors: the only thing to do is to shake your head at the damage while you’re passing. Keep sympathetic to their plight. And then keep on walking to where you were going.