Sunday, October 27, 2013

Bad Reviews or Why Prisoners Like Grits

Human beings are unique individuals, with unique tastes and likes.  And dislikes.  Anyone who has ever tried to feed a child vegetables knows that everyone likes different things.  There is no universal anything that appeals to everyone.

Case in point– born and raised in New Orleans, I like seafood.  Fried, boiled, and in the case of oysters, raw.  I like frog legs and barbecue alligator.  My sister, who shared my upbringing, is a picky eater, and says she’s “allergic” to seafood, a euphemism for she doesn’t really like it.  She doesn’t eat gumbo or etouffe and when we were little girls, would eat a bowl of Fruit Loops on Thanksgiving day instead of any of the vast offerings my Cajun relatives had prepared. 

So why do we get so upset when someone doesn’t like what we’ve written?

I suppose not liking your book is more akin to someone not liking your baby than not liking your favorite color or favorite meal.  It’s so much more personal.  But really, the same logic should apply. 

Not everyone may appreciate your character’s dry wit, fondness for Shakespeare, or the rum and Coke your character needs to make it through the day.   If someone doesn’t like your character, or your plot, or even your locale, he might dislike your book.  Maybe one of your characters reminds the reader of someone he knew in real life. While it’s a great compliment that your character is that realistic, it does little too salve the wound of the reader turning on you because of it.

I had a girl give me a scathing review because she didn't like my character.  I still try to take it as a good thing, that she saw so much to hate in my protagonist she must have really viewed her as a real person.  Here is the link to her Amazon review, the worse review I've ever received.

Did I cringe when I read this review? Of course. I still do.  I just cringed when I saw it again when I clicked the link above to test it to see if it worked.  It's a terrible, horrible review.  The girl was kind of mean and maybe a tad immature.  Or am I just projecting here? Either way, when things like this bother me, I keep in mind a story from my old D.A. days.

When I was a new Orleans prosecutor, the public defender in one section of court I was assigned to would let me speak to the inmates before the judge took the bench.  With their rap sheets in hand, I would go through the docket and figure out if there were any deals to be offered.  We had a huge docket, and deals were a primary way of moving it.  The D.A. has always multi-billed everyone in New Orleans, meaning we enhanced sentences based upon how many prior convictions the defendant had, similar to the 3-strikes law.  It clogged the docket and sometimes put defendants in jail for really long periods of time for relatively minor crimes.

I remember one particular defendant who had 7 prior auto burglary convictions.  That’s right, seven.  On a fourth felony conviction of ANYTHING, a defendant is looking at 20 to life.  I’m not a fan of getting my car broken into– it has happened several times in my lifetime– but I also can’t stand the thought of how much it costs to keep someone in prison for life for breaking into cars.  (Especially when I’ve seen killers walk away with much less because they had a paid attorney.) 

So after I told the defendant he needed to switch to a new crime because he obviously sucked at car burglaries, I asked him how much time would he be willing to serve if he could get a deal.  My supervisor had to approve every deal and I knew my office would still be looking for a lengthy sentence.  The defendant was a little wishy-washy, but I got him to commit to twelve years.  I thought that would be fair, if my bosses would approve it, and I could move the case.

Before we finished our discussion, the defendant looked at me earnestly and said, “Miss, you don’t know how bad it is in here.  In the morning, we get grits.  Plain grits. Not even no butter or salt or pepper, just plain grits.  I got to get out of here, even if it is in twelve years. I can’t go the rest of my life without butter and salt and pepper on my grits.”

Now I was thinking, hmmmm, I’ve never put salt and pepper on my grits before, but it sounds good. So the next time I ate grits, I tried them the defendant’s way, and they were delicious.  They were not something that would keep me going in jail for twelve years, looking forward to having them when I got out, but still good.

Grits meant way more to the defendant than they ever could to me.  Given the chance, they would not be my first choice of food, not even for breakfast, not even after a twelve-year incarceration. 

But like my defendant willing to plead guilty to twelve years so he could have his buttered grits with salt and pepper once again, readers come to your book with a host of experiences and expectations, as well as their own preferences and prejudices, which can make them hate your book or love your book.  Most of the time, you will never know the reason– you can only accept that you can’t even expect to please them all.

As for the defendant, I was moved out of the section before his next court date, (common practice at the D.A.'s Office), so I never did find out if he got the deal or not, or if he ever got his grits the way he liked them again.  Clearly, there are much worse things than bad reviews. 


Theresa Varela said...

Great post, Holli. A beta reader once read my novel and "Hated it" with two snaps... and you get my point. I realized that there was no identification with the culture, the characters or the fact the protagonist has a very conflicted relationship with her mother. I only realized it after I read her manuscript that was probably the opposite of mine. Thanks for this post!

Holli Castillo said...

It's hard not to take bad reviews personally, especially if you are the type of person that will decide not to post the review if you flat out didn't like the book. What annoyed me the most was the girl admitted she didn't read the last third of the book but then complained that I didn't explain the plot or provide enough clues as to the killer's identity. If she had kept reading, she may have had her answers. I now just chalk it up to differences in taste (mine being good, her's bad. Just kidding!)

Anonymous said...

Good post Holli... While I have yet to get a bad review on Amazon (but probably will), I feel your pain in a different way. When I was teaching @ the college, I typically got 4's and 5's out of a possible 5 from my students. And they left nice comments. I had one, however, who was a tattooed and pierced-up gal, and a loner who no one in the class liked. And of course, at the end of the class I got all 4's and 5's, except from her. And just nasty, mean comments, picky stuff. So here I am about 10 years later, and guess which evaluation I remember!! I think these people have poor self-esteem and it's a 'misery loves company' type of deal. They're so unhappy with themselves that they find pleasure in inflicting venom and vitriol on others. I guess that's the ol' profiler in me. Sadistic tendencies. Oh...STOP THAT Pete!

Holli Castillo said...

Pete, I agree completely that insecure people tend to be the most scathing. I always tell my kids making someone else feel bad won't make them feel any better, just like saying someone is ugly doesn't make the speaker any prettier or saying someone's stupid doesn't make the speaker any smarter.