A friend of mine who is just starting out in the gay fiction genre e-mailed me last week about a review he’d received on goodreads.com. This is his first book, and probably his first bad review. (Seriously, it wasn’t pretty at all.) And let’s face it, all authors who have been around for a while know and expect at least several scathing reader reviews on web sites like goodreads.com. This falls under the category of you just can’t please everyone no matter how hard you try. And sometimes it also falls under the category of what can I learn from the comments in this review as an author.
I tried to explain this to my friend, to help him understand there’s nothing an author can do to avoid receiving scathing reviews. I told him one thing that always helps is to check out the reviews for well sold mainstream fiction authors, like John Irving and Anne Tyler, and read how a few readers have trashed their books. Because if someone has a problem with books that the majority of the public loves…especially Pulitzer Prize winning books…there’s usually a problem with that particular reader, not the book or the author.
But when my friend explained to me that he was mostly upset about how this particular reader reacted to his portrayal of gay men in relationships, and the dynamics and the way gay men relate to each other, I wasn’t sure what to tell him. He said the review questioned his personal experience as a gay man, and he said the reader who gave him the review was a woman who reads gay fiction as a hobby. And rather than read with an open mind about what it’s really like to be gay, she trashed his book because she wanted some type of fantasy about what she thinks being gay is supposed to be like. Again, I was at a loss for words.
My friend was also insulted, on a social and a political level. He said no one would ever dare to question the experiences of any other author writing about the experiences of a specific minority. And I told him he wasn’t totally correct. Though readers seem more comfortable attacking the lgbt experience, other minority authors experience the same thing from time to time. I have, indeed, seen a prolific author who writes about the Asian experience, from his own personal background, and readers actually had the audacity to question his personal experiences. I’ve read mean reviews that said his book wasn’t authentic, and these reviews were written by people who probably know very little about Asian culture.
Ultimately, my friend wanted to know how real gay fiction should be. And there’s only one way to answer that: you do what you think is best, based on your own personal experiences and from observing the experiences of other gay people you know. In fiction, there’s a certain amount of fantasy and poetic license you can get away with, but the basics have to be authentic. Nine out of ten readers will get it and thank you for it. And that one lone reader who writes a snarky review won’t be taken seriously. If anything, from what I’ve observed by reading countless numbers of reviews for books in varying genres, that one lone reviewer usually winds up looking like an amateur.