While we at the Riot are taking this lovely summer week off to rest (translation: read by the pool/ocean/on our couches), we’re re-running some of our favorite posts from the last several months. Enjoy our highlight reel, and we’ll be back with new stuff on Wednesday, July 8th.
This post originally ran June 3, 2015.
I was in 10th grade the first time it happened. My kid sister was in 8th, and her English teacher knew all about my obsession with literature. One afternoon at the library, my sister walked up to me browsing through racks in the teen section and handed me a floppy book with a grey cover.
“My teacher wrote this,” she said with glee. “She asked me to give it to you to read it and see what you thought. I told her you like writing, too.”
Of course my first thought was one of general excitement: someone my sister knows wrote a book! It’s at the library! It has a publisher’s stamp and a copyright date, an acknowledgement flyleaf, and her name on it, right there! I happily took the book and checked it out, reading it while facing toward the window on the bus ride back home. I imagined myself buying it, getting it signed, and hanging it up on a rack for all my nerdy friends to gawk over when they came to visit.
I didn’t like it. I thought it was terrible, actually, maybe the worst book I ever read. Even my teenage self could sense that the stilted dialogue and stereotypical characters were just no good. I got about four chapters in before I closed it for good. I had to lie to my sister and tell her I liked it, just so she could save face with her teacher.
Writing a book is a great accomplishment. It can take years of meditating, creating, editing, querying, marketing, and tweaking to get it published. It’s an effort that absolutely deserves praise. But what are we supposed to do when someone we personally know, even care about, writes a bad one?
In my adult years, a family member decided to hook me up with his stepmother, who was a multi-times self-published author and radio personality. In a long phone conversation one day, she explained to me the process of writing a book and how to start self-publishing. I appreciated her feedback, even though self-publishing wasn’t the route I thought I would want to pursue when I finally finished my first Great American Novel (cue the laughs).
I searched her name on Amazon and found her work. They were mostly self help books, books on finding confidence in a male dominated world and letting go of your damaged past. They were books that someone out there would need to read. Someone out there would find them helpful, and might even leave a five star review. That person, unfortunately, wouldn’t be me. I tried out a free copy of one of her books and didn’t like it. Alas!
I started to feel like something was wrong with me. Was I just a bad person? Had the literary elitism I worked so hard to lay to rest come back to haunt me? Was I—gasp—jealous?
No. The books were just bad. When I confessed my feelings to my sister, she told me that she agreed, even way back in her 8th grade year: her teacher’s book sucked. My other family member? He shrugged when I asked what he thought of his kin’s work. I knew I wasn’t alone.
Writing a book is a challenge. If ten people would like to tackle it, four might actually begin…and only two may complete it. It’s 100% worthy of praise and celebration. When someone we know crosses the finish line, we have a duty to celebrate their accomplishment. But that doesn’t mean that I–I mean you–have to like it. And if we don’t, that certainly doesn’t mean we have to tell them so. Get it signed and put it up on the shelf anyway.