The paperback of LIFE SENTENCES comes out today. It would make me very happy if you bought it. Reading it would be nice, too, yet less essential. You can use it to swat flies, or prop up a bureau with a missing leg. It has an essay, “Shut Up, Memory,” in which I write about my preoccupation with memory’s power and imperfection. So, even if you have the hardcover, don’t you want to spend whatever it takes to get that essay? <g>
Usually on pub date, I run an excerpt from BIRD BY BIRD, but it doesn’t really apply this time. Even an author expects the paperback pub date to be relatively quiet. Come August and the publication of I’D KNOW YOU ANYWHERE, I’ll probably be a little giddier. I’m so laid-back this year that I almost forgot I had a signing tonight — and it’s one of only three events I’m doing for the paperback!
I hope it’s been clear in the past week of blogging that my goal was to expose myself, at least as a writer. Of the sins and mistakes I’ve explored, I know all of them first-hand.
Beth Tindall, webmistress extraordinaire, threw out an interesting topic: What have I learned from readers? Well, I’ve learned about the mistakes I’ve made and I’ve learned that most people are extremely gracious in pointing them out. I’ve learned that it’s an honor to be taken into someone’s busy life for however long it takes that person to read a book. I’ve learned not to engage with angry people because they seem to get angrier. Once, just once, I asked a woman who wrote me a very critical e-mail if she realized it was unkind and if she would explain to me why she felt compelled to send it. I got a lot more than I bargained for. I am going to print the exchange here in full.
Dear Ms. Lippman,
I am a mother and grandmother past the century mark. My life is very busy
with a business and an industrial park. I also keep our 2 grandsons (3 & 6
yrs) a couple of days a week when our daughter works as an RN. I read
constantly—always, always have a book or two or three with me. Normally, I
books a week and have managed to pass this love of reading—all things in
print—to our oldest grandson. He is currently reading 2 animal encyclopedias
and Harry Potter #4. They both enjoy being read to as well.
Having prefaced this with some background information, I wanted you to know
that in all my years of reading, there have been only 3 books that I have
attempted to read and could not finish because they were so poorly written.
have been considerably more than that, which I finished, because I kept
thinking it has to get better. Good bones or premise but just never gets to
book” status. I have just now finished What the Dead Know. It very nearly
became book number 4 not completed.
I had not, that I can remember, read any of your other books and will not be
reading any more. While the book did appear to have an interesting story at
its core, I felt that it was very poorly put together and did not ever reach
the potential of core story. It seemed to be way too disjointed and chopped
up. While that may have been your intention, it did not seem to transport back
and forth with any unity. A decent punch line doesn’t cure what ails it.
I would not at this hapless point ever consider recommending your work. I
was prepared, right up to the last page, to give the book every chance and was
Dear [Name redacted],
I’d like to ask you a few questions because whatever you think of my writing
skills, I am very curious about human nature. Why did you take time to write
your email? What need did it fulfill for you? Were you angry that you wasted
time reading the book? Did you feel that I would benefit, knowing that I would
no longer have you as a reader? Did you think I might become a better writer?
Did you know that your opinion is not one widely shared by the world, and feel
the need to assert your iconoclasm? Did writing the email make you feel good?
Did you hope I would feel bad?
One small note: There’s no “punch line” in the book. It is revealed that a
woman has spent the past thirty years of her life in utter misery, believing she
could not be forgiven for something she had done. However poorly written you
might think the story is, this was not intended to draw laughs.
best, Laura Lippman
Dear Ms. Lippman,
When I make a purchase of anything, I generally expect it to perform, be as
advertised, do what it says it will do, etc. That includes books. Your
product was touted as, among many glowing other things:
I found absolutely none of those things to be the case. It was chaotic,
choppy, disjointed and rambling. The base story was decent, even interesting,
but the delivery was very poorly orchestrated.
I do praise/complain to businesses/people about products/services when I
feel moved to do so. If I am inclined to either recommend the product/service
never use/purchase more, I will usually state the fact.
I never said I was angry or even upset. I do feel that it was a waste of my
time. You seem to be much more upset than I am, yet you invite readers to
respond. If you only want glowing reviews, then you should not make yourself
Does it make me feel better? Not necessarily. Although, this does, now. I
believe it the height of conceit and audacity that you feel that I don’t have
the right to an opinion that you don’t care for. As you seem to think very
highly of your work, I am surprised you bothered respond. You obviously don’t
care what your readers think unless they agree with you. How many other
readers do you suppose don’t bother to tell you what you don’t want to hear?
Arrogance is not becoming.
My belief is that praise can be a good thing and when deserved, should be
given. I also feel the same way about criticism. Had I thought your book
deserved praise, I would have probably sent that as well, as it was the first of
your books for me. You apparently don’t think the same way and are only
interested in like-minded praise for your work.
You should look up “punch line” in the dictionary. It does not refer only
to comedy. I never said that your book was humorous or funny. I won’t presume
you know nothing of tragedy and you should not either.
I did happen to notice that your form of criticism was to express concern
about my motivation and did not care at all why or how I came to my conclusion.
Your reaction was to criticize me, for having the gall to voice a poor
opinion, rather than seek what I based my opinion on. I am sure you will have
continued success, after all there are millions that share your high opinion of
yourself. So, you really need not be concerned about one reader, while I stand
in the bookstores with other readers or post online reviews.
Have a nice life.
Dear [Name redacted],
You’ve gone a long way out of your way to be insulted. I didn’t know why you
wrote; now I do. I asked because I was curious about you. You had volunteered
several details about your life, but you didn’t tell me why you decided to
write. Surely, whatever your motivations, you must have known that your words
would be hurtful? Or perhaps you didn’t know, and that’s interesting, too.
I’m not sure where you got the idea I have a high opinion of myself. I don’t.
I asked a series of questions about you, out of genuine interest. Like you, I
/>read lots of books, but when I’m disappointed, I have no desire to tell the
writer. We’re simply different that way.
And, while it’s true that a book can be viewed as a product for which one
exchanges money and then demands a certain amount of satisfaction — again,
that’s a very different perspective from mine. Not better, not worse, just
You started a dialogue. I responded. I’m responding again because I hate the
idea that you think I’m conceited or that I found you audacious for writing to
me. I simply didn’t understand why you wrote and I probably should have kept
the question that open. For suggesting various scenarios, which you then
inferred were thoughts I actually had about you — I’m truly sorry.
By the way, I looked up punch line in two dictionaries, and both of them
noted that it was part of a humorous story or anecdote.
This happened two years ago and it still makes me sad. Not because she disliked the book, but because this is a case of two people speaking past each other. So much band-width, infinite space with which to express ourselves and here are two human beings with the same native language and we can’t make ourselves understood to one another.
I have a policy that I respond to all signed e-mails about my work. I still do, but all I say now to disgruntled readers is that I’m truly sorry that they were disappointed. This past year, my e-mail link has been increasingly wonky, and while I’ve mentioned this to webmistress extraordinaire Beth Tindall, I haven’t done anything to fix it. I remember when e-mail was fun, a novelty. Now, it’s mostly work and the occasional hate mail. And people wonder why I’m spending more time on Facebook!
What did I learn from this reader? To quote Crimes of the Heart, I think she was having a bad day. So was I. This is The Memory Project, right? Well, I will always remember that day because I was cranky. It was hot, I had been on multiple errands, I was frustrated by — oh, this feels like a detail from a Rachel Cusk novel — trying to find the right granite for our kitchen renovation. But I was truly curious, trying to figure out why anyone would write such an e-mail. As I’ve noted here, I don’t read Amazon reviews and I don’t Google myself. But this was clearly something that someone wanted me to read. Was it really about the book?
By the way, please don’t belittle her in the comments. It’s easy to pick on her grammar and her claim that she’s past the “century mark.” If you must respond, respond to the emotion, the frustration of a reader who didn’t get the experience she was expecting. Or pick on me for being small-minded enough to debate the dictionary meanings of “punch line.” Or for answering at all.