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.