Ever start a post and just know deep down you’re going to ruffle feathers?
Ever start a post when you’re half asleep but it’s the only free time you have available to you? Ever do so and hope and pray that the spelling mistakes aren’t too atrocious? That your readers will be forgiving?
You see where I’m going with this, right?
The other day I made a stupid move and checked my reviews on Amazon. Unless you’re reading the glowing reviews for a bit of a motivational boost, don’t bother reading the 3 star and lower reviews. I’m not afraid of critique…when it’s constructive. And anything lower than a 4 star review on Amazon will more than likely not be constructive. It will be hurtful, hateful and probably leave you in tears. This touches on a much bigger issue involving the validity and power of Amazon reviews; another post for another day.
After reading the not-so-glowing review of my book, I decided to do what (I hope) many other authors do: head to the Amazon pages of some of our favorite best-selling authors and read their horrific 1 and 2 star reviews. Yeah, this is playground mentality, but it works.
I decided to read a couple of reviews on some very popular memoirs. Sidebar: popular does not mean good. 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight are perfect examples of popular not being good.
But is there a difference between popular fiction and popular memoirs and what it takes to read AND comprehend them?
I think so.
I think – and this might be the feather ruffling part – that it takes a certain level of education or intelligence to “get” a good memoir. Why? Because when you look at the reviews of some of the most popular memoirs, the bad reviews have a theme wherein they attack the basic premise of the memoir, missing the point entirely.
Take these reviews, borrowed directly from Amazon, of “The Middle Place” by Kelly Corrigan.
“As so many have written, the author is a whiny self-indulgent adult who needs to grow up. The world appears to revolve around her and she appears to be the only one who knows what should take place, who to contact etc and how people should act or believe.”
Rebuttal: She does need to grow up…which is exactly what being in “the middle place” is all about. When do we separate ourselves from being someones child to transitioning to being an equal, and eventually, a caretaker? How many of us have looked at our kids and thought, damn, am I really a parent? Am I really responsible for another human life? And once you do have the life-altering realization that you are way to grown-up to be called a child, do you in fact stop being a child to your parents? This is the deep, probing question the author has chosen to explore in her memoir. And doing so isn’t always pretty. In fact, it takes a lot of guts to write about your worst traits. It takes a lot of courage to face them and move forward.
“My book club read this memoir and all nine of us disliked it. Not one of us thought this was the inspiring memoir of a breast cancer survivor – which is what we expected. If you like reading light, fluffy stuff about people you don’t know, then you may enjoy this book.”
Rebuttal: If memoirs are only full of dark and never full of light, they are terrible. They would be sent back by any editor for massive rewrites. Memoirs serve to put readers in someone else’s shoes to a point. Readers want to feel, not drown. A depressing story does not make for a good memoir. “The Middle Place” is not first and foremost meant to be a story about surviving cancer. Kelly’s cancer and her father’s recurring cancer are the catalysts that drive her transition. The survival is definitely in this book, but it is the secondary focus.
“As someone else mentioned, this book is not about going through the experience of having cancer. The author probably framed it that way to increase her chances of having it published. I don’t know how many people would run out and buy a book if it was touted as a book about a spoiled, self-centered child-woman who is as bratty as a two-year old.”
Rebuttal: Um, read the back of the book? Again, cancer is the catalyst, not the main character. She was published because she wrote a brilliant and insightful memoir. Kelly certainly shows us her bratty side…as well as her loving side, her nurturing side, the parts of her that feel fear and grief. Showing her bratty side is what makes her vulnerable and real. If she was a saint, no one would buy it. Sorry, but having cancer does not give you an automatic sainthood card! Showing the bratty side is necessary for us to see her growth by the end of the book.
My point is, I think that good memoirs fall into a class of books above pop culture fiction. They aren’t dime a dozen Tom Clancy novels that anyone with a basic level of education can read and enjoy. Memoirs are incredibly difficult to write because unlike a mystery or a romance, which have a distinct outline of how they should be written, memoirs mix up the undeniable rules of writing to create a new genre. Unlike fiction, memoirs can’t be overly dramatic, sappy or emotional. They have to walk a line between real and imaginative. They have to make readers feel without making those readers feel duped.
Go look at other reviews for popular memoirs and you will notice a trend. The majority of negative reviews out there simply don’t “get” what they read.
Do you agree? Disagree? By all means, let me know what you think!