I Really Like Reading Bad Reviews of My Nemesis: Am I the Literary Asshole?


Howdy! Welcome back to the greatest lil’ drunken writing advice column this side of the hotel bar. Thanks for sticking with me. I’ve immensely enjoyed reading all your burning questions (and hey, let’s face it, sometimes your burning “this is more of a comment than a question” questions), and even more than that, I’ve enjoyed your feedback! Nothing says “I’m writing an ill-advised advice column” quite like people telling you you’re doing it wrong. That must mean I’m doing something right!

But seriously, folks—it’s been a pleasure spending time with you and your thoughts every other week. Thanks for trusting me with your questions… And thanks for laughing at my jokes (in my head, you’re all laughing). We make a great team!

I’ve got a bottle of whiskey and some ice that’s already started to melt (c’mon, this is Florida), so let’s jump straight to the questions before I accidentally wind up drinking a glass of water. Me, hydrated? What is this, amateur hour?

Giddy up!

1) Is it alright to judge books by their covers? I just can’t help myself. If I see a blue-ish/sepia-ish cover with a woman with her back turned to me I’m going to stay way the hell away from that book. I’m sure it is probably good, but it is a signal to me that this historical fiction book is for literary book clubs and I will meet a strong woman who faces unthinkable circumstances and in some form overcomes them. If I see a cover that looks like a VHS tape I’m 100 percent buying that book right then and there regardless of back blurb.

I don’t think it’s necessarily asshole behavior to judge a book by its cover; mostly because—come on, admit it—we’re all doing that, even if it’s done subconsciously.

We’re human! We have preferences! Likes and dislikes, favorite colors, chosen designs. Hell, most of us even have a preferred font. I can admit here, amongst friends, that when I write, I exclusively use twelve-point Times New Roman, and I do it single-space, in a Word Document (yes, I am a basic bitch). For me, it just feels right.

We like what we like. There’s nothing wrong with that.

So, it makes sense that occasionally we’ll see a book cover and immediately get the ick. If you’re a person who favors a bold, graphic style, encountering a cover that swings in the opposite direction would understandably make your eyes slip to the next prospect.

However, I’d like to zoom in a bit on what you’ve also mentioned in your question. You’re not just talking about the cover here, friend. You’ve also discussed what you think that book might be about. Historical fiction, you wrote. A woman facing unthinkable circumstances. What you’ve essentially said is that you don’t enjoy that genre. And when you see a cover like the one you’ve described, you assume that the book will be about that topic. So yes, you shy away. Now, I would offer that perhaps it’s not the cover that is turning you off; it’s simply the subject matter. You don’t prefer those kinds of books.

That’s fine!

As I’ve said here before, there are simply too many books out in the world to ever read them all. Pick the ones you think you’re going to like and just enjoy them. Give yourself a break. If you miss out on a few gems because you’ve decided the cover looks like something you’d rather avoid, then I think you’ll still be fine. Plenty of VHS covers out there in the sea.

I’m parched. Let me take another swig of this whiskey and have a looksee at out next caller.

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2) The question that has been beaten down to death: How to overcome reader’s block? Thanks.

You’re right, this is one of the classics! Even the most prolific readers will occasionally find themselves blocked. We’ll start a book, our eyes begin to swim, and then we’ll set it down with a discontented sigh. It’s like being hungry, but not in the mood for anything in particular. Nothing seems to satisfy.

Burnout happens.

I mean, not to everyone. There’s always the occasional individual who doesn’t have this particular problem, and I will admit, I am jealous of that. But! I will say that as a reader, I very rarely get an intense kind of burnout that lasts longer than a week. And I do credit that with one simple action: if I need a break, I give myself one.

That doesn’t mean I stop ingesting art! I’m of the very staunch opinion that almost anything can get us juiced up creatively. And by that, I mean movies, television, visual art, crafts, cooking, walks, knock-knock jokes, drinks at the bar, literary events, backyard BBQs, comedy specials, dog shows, birthday parties, etc. Almost anything can give me a boost if I’m willing to switch my focus.

Too much of a good thing can sometimes overload our minds. If you’re reading the same genre, day in, day out, it’s possible that your brain has just gotten overly saturated. Taking breaks to enjoy something different—poetry when you’re tired of fiction, graphic novels when you’re totally over memoirs—can sometimes bring us back to what we love about art in the first place.

Generally, we’ll find our way back to books after we’ve given ourselves time to enjoy something different. The world is wide, my friends, and though it can occasionally be nightmarish, it’s also full of delights. To quote the internet, Touch Grass (but really, though, when in doubt, go outside). Let yourself off the hook. When you find your way back again, I bet that next book will read all the sweeter.

Time for the round up! One last long sip of whiskey as we peruse our final question.

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3) I’m mildly obsessed with finding bad reviews of the work of a writer who is very acclaimed but I don’t like at all. Am I broken???

I love that this isn’t a question of asshole behavior, but rather a question of whether you’ve stopped functioning properly. It’s like you’re a robot whose circuits have suddenly started sparking and smoking, an android on the cusp of catastrophic system failure.

Friend, you’re not broken and you’re not a robot (unless you are a robot? If that’s the case, then we’ve got a whole different set of problems to deal with here). What you are is a human being.

You haven’t mentioned whether the writer in question is an asshole, so I’ll have to assume they’re perfectly fine. When someone is a jerk, it opens the floodgates of freedom, a feeling that is akin to absolving our sins when it comes to enjoying bad literary coverage of another writer. In this case, it sounds like they’re just a random author who for some reason really gets under your skin. That’s normal! It happens. It doesn’t mean you’re broken.

I think it might mean, however, that you need to consider why you’re looking up these bad reviews. Odds are that it actually has very little to do with the author in question and more to do with how you’re currently feeling about yourself. The publishing world sets us up to feel as though we are constantly in competition with one another. When someone gets a book deal or a residency or an award or a grant, it can occasionally make it feel like there’s not enough good to go around.

If you’re at a point right now where you feel stagnant or like things aren’t really happening for you, it can be easy to transfer that feeling of doubt and depression onto another writer; especially if it’s one you don’t know. When we look at those bad reviews, we are attempting to bridge the gap. Look at this person, we say. They’re not perfect, either.

It’s totally fine to do this, I promise. But do it in moderation, friend. When you put the focus back on yourself and your own work, you’ll start to feel better.

That’s all for today, pals. Join me next time when I dig into more of your incredible questions (and attempt to make a beer float). Yee-haw.

Be the cowboy,

Dad

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Are you worried you’re the literary asshole? Ask Kristen via email at AskKristen@lithub.com, or anonymously here.

AM l THE LITERARY ASSHOLE



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