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 a reader 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 caused by a reader who turns on you because of it.
I received a scathing review of my novel Gumbo Justice by a reader who hated my character, didn't like my plot, didn't even finish reading the book because she was afraid she was going to throw her Kindle across the room. She had no trouble, however, finishing this horrible
review of my book. Eventually I convinced myself that at least my protagonist must have been realistic to cause her such a reaction.
Whenever I start to feel down about that review, I recall my former days at the D.A.'s Office in New Orleans. In one section I was assigned to prosecute, the public defender 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 boss had to approve every deal and I knew my office would still be looking for a lengthy sentence. If the defendant wasn't willing to commit, there was no point in wasting my time trying to get him the deal. He was a little wishy-washy at first, but he eventually agreed to twelve years. I thought it was a fair sentence, if my bosses would approve it, and I could move the case.
Before we finished our bargaining, he looked at me earnestly and said, “Miss, you don’t know how bad it is in here. In the morning, we get plain grits. Not even no butter or salt or pepper, just plan 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 it. 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 my defendant, I was transferred to another section before his case came back up again-- a common practice at the D.A.'s Office. So I don't know if he ever got the chance to have buttered grits with salt and pepper again or not. I guess there are things a lot worse than a bad review.
Causes Holli Castillo Supports
American Diabetes Association, American Breast Cancer Association, Lazarus House New Orleans