A Vengeful Screed?

I’m about to do something that no author should ever do: respond to a negative review.

Generally speaking, I abide by the rule that one should take one’s lumps in silence. It’s never easy to hear criticism of your writing, but if you’re going to make it as a writer it’s something you have to get used to. And I have. Nor am I so naïve as to think that everyone who reads The Mother Daughter Show will love it. There are very few books, if any, that are universally beloved. Usually, when I read a review by someone who didn’t like the book I remind myself of all the people who did like it, and I move on.

But this review—an Amazon reader review—is harder to brush off. The reviewer didn’t just attack my writing, she attacked me as a person. And, as I’ll explain in a moment, she did an injustice to the very people she was trying to defend.

The review, headed “A Vengeful Screed, Not a Satire,” takes issue with my novel because, according to the reviewer, “it’s based on TRUE EVENTS that are thinly veiled as satire and that defame three real-life mothers who dared to reign [sic] in the author-Broadway wannabe from taking over a sweet tradition.”

The reviewer admits in the review that she has no first-hand knowledge of these “TRUE EVENTS.” As far as I can make out, she’s a friend of someone who was involved in the real Mother-Daughter Show and who feels that she, or someone she knows, has been portrayed in the novel in a less than flattering light.

It’s hard to know where to begin. First of all, as I’ve said repeatedly, while the book was inspired by a real experience, it is—and I’m going to put this in all caps—FICTION. Yes, a few things that are in the book did happen, but huge amounts of it came from my imagination.

This is especially true of the characters. While the three main characters fill roles vis-a-vis the fictional show that were, more or less, filled by real women involved in the real show—the Writer, the Organizer, the Keeper of the Peace—these characters are creatures of my own invention. I had no interest in turning the real women in the show into fictional characters, and even if I had, I couldn’t have done it. I simply didn’t know them well enough to write about them in the kind of detail a novelist needs to command if she’s going to make her characters come alive.

And even if you were to accept the reviewer’s claim that my characters somehow “are” real people, they’re actually not that bad. Sure, they’re flawed—all literary characters need flaws, especially the ones in a comic novel—but to me they’re fundamentally sympathetic, and I know that many readers perceive them that way as well. I didn’t want to write a story that had villains in it. When my characters behave less than admirably, as all of them do on occasion, I wanted readers to understand their motivations and be able to imagine themselves behaving similarly. Yes, the book is a satire, but it’s a gentle one.

Not to mention that if you accept the reviewer’s logic, one of the women I’m “defaming” is actually myself, since one of the characters plays a role parallel to the one I played in the real show.

As for the reviewer’s contention that I was a “Broadway wannabe” who tried to “take over” the show, that one is actually kind of amusing—or would be, in a different context. Suffice it to say that I had no such ambitions.

And as for the idea that the show was a “sweet tradition”—well, some people feel that way, I’m sure. But I’ve spoken to quite a few women who, over the years, had a less than sweet experience. I’ve met women who told me they would go home and cry after the planning meetings because the other mothers were so cruel to them. I’ve met women who were in this show 25 years ago and still find the experience too painful to talk about. The year I was involved in the show, I’m sure there were women on the periphery who thought it was all very sweet, but anyone who knew what was really going on was well aware there were serious problems.

Is it worth putting some women through such unpleasantness year after year so that other women can continue what is, from their perspective, a sweet tradition? I don’t think so. And apparently neither does the school, since as of this year they’ve abolished the show. (Some people think the school took that action because of my book, and credit or blame me accordingly—one Mother-Daughter Show veteran told me I’d performed a “public service.” But I’m confident the school didn’t need me to point out that the tradition had gotten out of hand.)

Of course, most likely none of what I’ve just said will make any difference to the reviewer or others who share her point of view. But I do feel that in one respect the reviewer got so carried away by her strong feelings that she unintentionally injured the very people she was trying to defend. In her zeal to denounce me, she opened the door for readers to take everything in the novel as literal truth—including, for example, the philandering husband I invented for one character and the bulimic daughter I invented for another. I suppose it’s possible that the characters’ real-life counterparts have such family members, but if they do, it’s a total coincidence. And either way, I can’t understand why anyone would want to give the public the impression that these things are true—especially someone who considers herself a friend of the people involved.

I didn’t set out to write a “vengeful screed,” but if I’m totally honest, I have to admit that I was upset when I began writing the book three years ago—not because my song lyrics had been rejected, as the reviewer would have it, but because of the cruel and sometimes underhanded way people were interacting with each other. But as I wrote and rewrote the manuscript, which ultimately went through about thirteen drafts and underwent substantial changes, my own emotions and the facts of the real-life show receded. My focus was simply on writing a decent novel. And although it wasn’t always easy to do all that rewriting, I’m very glad I did. Reflecting and revising not only makes for better writing, it also minimizes the chances that the final product will end up sounding like—well, like a vengeful screed.

That’s why I waited 24 hours after composing this blog post, during which I turned it over in my mind quite a bit. Then I read it again and made some changes before posting it. I can only wonder if the Amazon reviewer did the same.