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[Diary of a Memoirist] Dream Reader, Nightmare Reviewer
Written by
Nancy K. Miller
January 2014
Written by
Nancy K. Miller
January 2014

This weekend brought two radically different responses to my new memoir that caused joy and despair, the alternation of outcomes my friend Carolyn used to refer to as the “swings and the roundabouts”―what you lose on the one (the swings), you gain on the other (the roundabouts). Things balance out in the end. In this case, though, it started with the roundabouts: a friend forwarded an email her twenty-year-old babysitter had sent her from vacation in the Dominican Republic, along with a selfie. I could not help smiling and sending it on to my friends.

The message read: “A pina colada and a cigarette in one hand, Nancy’s book in the other, with Spaniards and Frenchmen surrounding me. It’s actually a great vacation read.”

This image of my book lying on the thighs of a young woman I do not know, clearly enjoying herself on the beach, gave me a terrific kick. No other way to put it. While it’s true that the Press had labeled the book “travel/memoir” on the back cover, I had been skeptical about the category that I associate with guidebooks. The girl’s snapshot put another spin on travel: the book itself had traveled, and also the book could be read on vacation. I loved the beach atmosphere and above all the girl’s confidence radiating from the shot itself. I can’t quite work out how she took the picture, but the angle told the story.

There was also the surprise of seeing my younger self looking out from the book jacket on the lap of this lovely twenty-year old; it made me feel, more than any positive review (though I’ve been very grateful for those), thrilled that I had written a book that could speak to women in their twenties today, not just women of my generation, and that “real people” could read and enjoy. I was, briefly, a happy author.

A few hours later, I received an email from a young friend who had happened to see a review of Breathless in a newspaper I don’t read, but which is a major newspaper. She was excited for me and I was too―though cautiously―because this would have been my first, and probably only, review in national media. She hadn’t read the review but told me it was long.

I know enough by now not to look at reviews that might be negative, and I’ve asked the Press to send all reviews to my publicist and so that she can filter them. I need to know if there’s something bad out there (if other people know, and with Google everybody can, then I should know too), but I have found over the years that the hostile words stick in my brain and so I try to avoid reading bad news as much as possible. This one, alas, did not make it through the screening process. The Press let me down. But it turned out that our neighbors, who were away for the weekend, subscribe to the paper and it was sitting out there on the landing―unread. So my husband tiptoed over to their door and borrowed the paper in order to read the review for me. He stood in the kitchen with his back to me, reading for what seemed like a very long time. I studied his back, hoping for some kind of involuntary movement that would give me a clue as to what the review contained. Finally, he finished and turned to look at me, sadly. I asked him if there was anything good in it, and he said no. But he gave me some of the flavor of the prose, enough for me to recognize this as one of those “mean girl” reviews and one that smelled like the culture wars. He put the paper back on the landing.

One of the dangers of writing in the first-person―as a critic or a memoirist―is that readers may outright hate you, your “I,” your persona. A version of “he’s just not that into you.” But what has always baffled me is why, when a critic picks up an essay or a book and feels a visceral repulsion for the writer, and everything she stands for, why go ahead and review it? It always then gets personal in the most ad feminam way. I remember a reviewer of a book about my family, who wrote: “And she’s not even grateful her parents sent her to Barnard.”

Not surprisingly, the bad review erased all the pleasure the email with selfie attached had given me. And being me―and not my friend―in this situation the roundabouts did not even begin to even out the swings.

It’s too late in my life for me to develop a thicker skin―always the recommendation at this point. So I’ll just have to wait for the bad stuff to exit my system. Like a hangover, it always does.

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  • RYCJ Revising

    Loved that 'roundabout' ...what a true treat! The other swing however is one where readers, not memoirists such as yourself, must get their arms (& eyes) around what a memoir represents.

    Aside from the fact that not every memoir may sit right with a reader, *like any other book*, memoirs in particular are inherently first person stories. It's the integral/innate feature that separates them from Biographies & AUTOBiographies. 

    Regardless, negative viewpoints do sting, even if I was humored for a sec thinking how ALL work, to include reviews and my little spiel here, whether written in 2nd, 3rd, and pick a #, really are first person as all of it boils down to a matter of opinion. Oh wait, the spiel on what separates mems from bios is a fact. - Coming from a top memoir reader!

  • Judith Glynn

    I was going along just fine with mostly 4- to 5-star reviews (yes, some from friends) with my first book, "A Collector of Affections: Tales from a Woman's Heart" when I received a scathing 1-star review from a woman on Goodreads. She then commented on each marked-to-read post telling the reader my book was awful and don't bother to read it,  etc. Then she went to Amazon and posted the 1-star review there. This woman was definitely on a mission.

    It took me a while but I've come to realize I need her and the other downers. They balance out reviews; otherwise, all good ones appear to be staged, despite the joy I get when I read them. This particular 1-star reviewer was moved by my book about middle-age romance and a fling that doesn't end. It touched her enough to bring up some bile that had a lot more to do with her than my writing. 

    My next book comes out in a few weeks. It's about my time spent with a NYC homeless woman that I return to her family in Italy. It's a feel-good story but I'm convinced some people won't see it that way. Bring 'em on is my attitude now. 

  • Nancy K. Miller

    First, thank you for all your encouraging advice. 

    Oddly, I was just about to say exactly what Monica Lee remarks on: the mean reviews, but also, oddly, the generous ones, almost never comment on the writing. It's all about how the reviewer (women as bad as men, if not worse, on women) "feels" (usually disdain) about the "I"---life choices, personality (as though we were still in a Seventeen popularity contest). It's the curse of the genre. And reviewers never seem to think that the "I" is a construction. 

    As for the wisdom of age, aging. I seem not to improve in this department, but perhaps it is time to change!

    Thank you all! 

  • Monica Lee

    It's hard not to take 1-star reviews of one's memoir personally. If the reader reviews the writing, tone, symbolism, pacing, it's easier for me to accept criticism. But when my life choices are reviewed ... Ugh, I cringe. I can't make my protagonist more likable -- I yam what I yam, as Popeye might say. I do agree wholeheartedly with Liz -- the best remedy is reading one-star reviews of books I loved (it's especially nice when there 100+ -- even though they hated the book, it evoked strong enough emotions in THAT many people to write bad reviews. And I know they're ALL wrong!).

  • Liz Gelb-O\'Connor

    Nancy, My book doesn't launch until April, but because it is up on NetGalley, I received my very first review over the Christmas break... a nasty 1-star review on Goodreads from a guy who picked up my urban fantasy / paranormal romance who I think, expected it to be more sci-fi. His exact words: this book is meant for cougars & Nora Roberts "sycophants". He also gave away a ton of spoilers in the book. Honestly, after I read it a couple of times, I wasn't as upset as I thought I'd be. It wasn't his cup of tea, but he didn't attack my writing - other than the Nora Roberts comment. Hmm. I'd gladly take her paycheck. Honestly, he wasn't my audience - but he felt compelled to write a review filled with venom and exclamation points.

    So, I recommend the follow exercise to every writer before they publish their book: pick your 5 favorite books, and read the one star reviews on Amazon / Goodreads / other outlet of choice. There will always be someone who hates your book... always. The more popular you become, the more judgmental reviewers can become.

    For every one person who hates it, there will be many more who like it. Focus on them... they are the one who deserve your attention and matter to future books sales and your career.

    Best of luck to you!

  • Donna Kaulkin

    Couple of things:

    On thin skin--At 70, I've noticed that I have developed a thicker skin re most things. So maybe you will too.

    On reviews--When I first read the Clarion and Kirkus reviews of my novel, "Brenda Corrigan Went Downtown", I was upset because they weren't perfect. Now, many months later, I read those reviews differently. I see the good parts and have even agreed to publish them. Perhaps I am buoyed because so many readers love the book, and in the final analysis that's what counts.


  • Kathryn Meyer Griffith


    take heart. I've had lots of mean 1 star reviews on most all of my 18 books. The same books that have had glowing 5 star reviews. So the moral of this? Some people will love your book and some people will hate it. So what. Accept that some reviewers have agendas or hidden hang-ups that make them either do mean-spirited reviews or there's something in your book that ticks them. Or, you caught them in a bad mood or a bad time of their life and their review had "nothing" to do with you. Just their unhappy venting because they feel powerless. reviewer couldn't download my eBook; said there were no words on the pages, and gave me a 1 star, trashed the book she never even read. Amazon won't take the stupid thing down; their rules. It's the only 1 star that book has ever gotten and it haunts me to this day (so I know how you feel). So reviews? They're just one person's take on your book and WHO are they that it matters? So cheer up. Keep writing and be proud of yourself.

  • Karen Sosnoski

    If the review was inspired by a political or cultural perspective that clearly is not yours, then readers of the review will see that and it may make them want to read the book. If they agree with the reviewer's overarching perspective, they're probably not going to buy the book anyway, right? At any rate, hopefully the hangover has already dissipated!!

  • Pamela Olson

    "Well it's all right now

    I've learned my lesson well.

    You know, you can't please everyone

    so you've got to please yourself."

    Of course, this is easier advice to give than to take.  We need to invent a good bad-review-hangover cure!