My Readers Hated Me. Good.
December 8, 2020 § 25 Comments
When I was working on my book, Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel, I was writing for my younger self and to other young women like me, or like I had been—women in their twenties and early thirties, who are in the process of finding themselves, of becoming. I wanted my book to function as a guide, or rather an anti-guidebook of sorts, a map of what not to do. I wanted these young women to see the mistakes I had made, so they wouldn’t need to the same ones themselves.
My advanced reader copies went out, and even though I shouldn’t have, I wanted to see how people were responding, so I looked at Goodreads. Other writers told me not to. They said, “Goodreads is for readers, not writers.” One writer told me that what readers think of my book is none of my business.
They were right, of course. But I thought, I’m a reader, too!
There were a number of reviews that didn’t like that the essays aren’t arranged in chronological order. A few men didn’t like my narrator, which was to be expected because I was writing about a woman trying to get out from underneath the male gaze and learning to be the subject of her own desire. Any story that subverts the patriarchal order is bound to be met with a bit of disdain—I counted this as a win.
What I wasn’t expecting was the vitriol from young women—not all young women, of course, but some of them hated the book and seemed especially mad at me for writing it. One young woman wrote a 1,200 word-review, twice as long as this post. These women, the very ones I thought I was penning a love letter to, were very passionate, indeed, but in their anger.
One young woman wondered if my younger self really did all those “stupid things” or if I was just “making it up” to sell books. Let me be clear: I wasn’t making it up. And yes, I really was that stupid.
Certainly, I could have just written a terrible book with an asshole narrator.
But I wondered why they would finish the book if they hated it (and me) so much and then take to Goodreads and spend a lot more time thinking and writing about a book they couldn’t stand.
During this same time, middle-aged and much older women started writing to me, gushing about how much they loved the book. They saw their younger selves, their own missteps, and they said that though they may not want to admit it, they could relate. They thanked me for putting their struggles into words. The mirror I held up to them showed their much younger selves and the ways that they had reckoned with their mistakes, helping them grow into the powerful women they now were.
I went back and noticed in the negative reviews, readers wrote more about themselves and their experiences in relation to the book. My book, it seemed, had held a mirror up to the reader, and some of these young women didn’t like what they saw.
I often tell my students to think about their audience, and I still think that’s good advice. Write to a specific someone in your mind. But now I’ll add this: you might be wrong about that specific someone, but that’s okay.
Sometimes the book is smarter than the writer. And your love letter may be unrequited, but someone else will find it, someone who needs it. And it doesn’t matter who that is, because you have done your work. You have written your book. And in the end, what the reader thinks about it is none of your business.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the travel essay collection Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel (University of Nebraska Press, 2020) and the memoir Almost Somewhere: Twenty-Eight Days on the John Muir Trail (winner of the National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four books of poems. Named “The Next Great Travel Writer” by National Geographic’s Traveler, Suzanne’s work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and included in The Best Women’s Travel Writing. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Rumpus, Hippocampus, The Normal School, River Teeth, and elsewhere. She holds a doctorate in literature and the environment from the University of Nevada-Reno and teaches for the low residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada University.
Great insight! A great reminder for us all!
I love this post. I never thought about the idea of considering that what the reader thinks about your writing is none of your business. This is such a liberating idea.
Yes! I do love this. To be able to say that the reader’s opinion of my work is none of my business would feel so great. I’ve been working on that. Thanks for this great post.
Thanks for reading!
It’s fascinating that your audience turned out to be a generation or so different from the one you imagined. Food for thought.
Suzanne, I am particularly interested to read your book and see what you had to say about Prague. We were there together although we didn’t interact with each other much. I believe Disneyland’s castle is patterned not after the spires of Prague but after Schloss Neuschwanstein in Germany.
Your post is a great reminder to not read reviews. Much appreciated.
So nice to hear from you after all these years. There is a chapter about Prague in Bad Tourist. I hope your writing is going well!
This is great! I think passionate responses are the best, even if some of them are negative.
Agreed! Though the ones that passionately LOVE the book are a little easier to take.
It’s ironic isn’t it that as a blogger, it’s all about interacting with the comments; as a writer, it definitely seems to be ‘don’t read the reviews’, especially as we have such a tendency to hold onto the more negative ones… thank you for being brave, self-reflective, & sharing your insights with all of us.
I may now be 54, but I’ve done loads of dumb shit while both traveling AND being in love, so I certainly want to read your book 😃✅
Best wishes from Australia, G
Just ordered the book. It sounds great…
Thanks. I hope you enjoy it!
Wonderful read and very insightful. As a new blogger I needed to read this. Thank you
So glad you found it useful. Happy blogging!
Suzanne, I’m perhaps older than you and yes done many stupid things in travel and in my love life too. Usually if I find a author that I disagree with I might just write a review saying just that. People are welcome to their views but it is the anger and hatred that I don’t understand. But you know you have hit a home run when they take it personally. I use to do a bit pf preaching in church and was a board chair of a church for 20 yrs or more. I’d have people come up after church or after a board meeting asking if I was talking about them. Of course I was not but I did ring a bell or touch on something they were thinking about. I don’t want all people to agree with my blogs and it doesn’t matter if they agree or not. I write to make people think not agree with me. My own brother gave me hell today but hey I love him anyway. But we don’t agree. Good writing thank you make them think no agree always .
So true. Thanks for reading!
I especially resonated with the ” what readers think of my book is none of my business” which I could also see in the “what other people think of me is none of my business”. Writing a book and putting yourself and your experiences out there, being vulnerable like that is already hard enough, of course negative comments would affect you. I am glad however, that you are aware that your contribution to the world is valid even if it’s not universally 100% liked. You got a valuable feedback and that after all is something that will make you grow, as did your experiences from your book 🙂
Thank you so much!
On Tue, 08 Dec 2020, 2:26 PM BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog, wrote:
> Guest Blogger posted: “By Suzanne Roberts When I was working on my book, > Bad Tourist: Misadventures in Love and Travel, I was writing for my younger > self and to other young women like me, or like I had been—women in their > twenties and early thirties, who are in the process o” >
Such a timely post. I’m not schooled as a writer, but I write quite often—mostly introspective writing on topics that require great honesty and vulnerability. I commend your bravery, which I’ve yet to fully develop myself. Instead I play peek-a-boo with my writings… putting them out there, then pulling them back, putting them out there, pulling them back (for blogging, at least; I’ve been published a few times, sometimes feeling great discomfort afterwards). Writing with such vulnerability usually means we’re quite sensitive individuals, overflowing with emotions that we learn to gradually tame. Someday I may bite the bullet and self-publish the stories I want to share. If I do, I’ll try my best to not cast my eyes on those potentially painful reviews (because I already see what will most definitely garner criticism). I will also now make sure I stay focused on who it is I’m writing for… thank you for that excellent reminder. I feel inspired to dust off the first draft again and check whether I’m staying focused. 🙂
I’m so happy to hear this! Yes, keep writing. But remember, your “reader” might be different than you think! And remember, so many negative reviews (especially the harsh ones) are because you have held a mirror up to your reader, and they don’t like what they see (or are not quite ready to see it)
That “holding up a mirror” concept is so applicable in very many ways to interactions in all of life in general. Life, if nothing else, is always interesting. 😊