How to write a review without sounding like a jerk

No 1100-mile hikes for me. I'll just stroll some trails around Sedona.

No 1100-mile hikes for me. I’ll just stroll some trails around Sedona. Photo by Lejon Johnson

I happened to check out a copy of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild at random, while doing an ebook demonstration at the library where I have my day job. This is the kind of book I would not have picked up ordinarily – my underlying snobbishness about all things popular, bestselling, and Oprah-approved kept me away from it for many years.

Let me take a minute to point something out. See how much of a jerk I sound like when I say that? See where I’m going with this?

I read the book and I liked it. Not only was the aspiring outdoorswoman in me fascinated by the subject matter – a three-month, 1100-mile solo hike across challenging terrain – but I’m also fascinated by people who have experienced trauma and made bad decisions and have found a way to come to terms with it all. So I went onto Goodreads to post my review.

Then I did something else I don’t ordinarily do. I read some of the other reviews.

Lots of people did not like this book. That’s fine – different people have different opinions. But the way in which they described their dislike was often very interesting, and very telling. It seems that many people had negative emotional reactions to the subject matter… and then blamed the book for their reactions.

The number one complaint was that the author was whiny. (Interestingly, other readers said she wasn’t whiny, or they said comparative things like “less whiny than Eat, Pray, Love.”) Strayed definitely does a lot of complaining about the problems she’s had; her life has been chock full of them, even before hitting the trail with a too-heavy pack and badly-fitting shoes in some of the worst weather in years. But her delivery is fairly neutral, mostly a simple statement of facts. She doesn’t do a lot of poor-me-ing or railing against God/heaven/the Fates about the hand she’s been dealt.

I’m going to make a guess that a lot of these anti-whine folks don’t like it when their friends and family complain about their problems, either. It probably makes them uncomfortable, so they dismiss it as whining to get away from the source of the discomfort. Not that I can speak for any individual reviewer, of course, but this sort of reaction is pretty common in human nature.

Another point of contention was the scene with Strayed’s horse. [Spoiler coming, so skip this paragraph if you’re concerned about that.] People were very bothered by what happened with the horse, and understandably so. At one point during the hike, Strayed reminisces about her mother’s horse, whose health declined after her mother’s death. During a visit home, Strayed found the horse to be so old and sick that the vet recommended euthanasia, and as Strayed couldn’t afford the medical euthanasia that the vet offered, she followed the advice of someone who said to shoot the horse between the eyes. Like they used to do. Like you see in the movies. It wasn’t as easy as you see in the movies, though, and the horse suffered a great deal. It’s an uncomfortable scene to read. I’m sure it’s meant to be an uncomfortable scene to read, intended to recreate powerful emotions and make the reader feel as horrible as the author felt. And unsurprisingly, a lot of the reviewers felt awful – and their response was to blame Strayed for not treating the horse right. Reviewers listed all sorts of other methods she should have tried, and criticized her for not doing things differently. Once again, it’s a common reaction in human nature: to blame your uncomfortable emotions on someone else and thereby create some distance from them.

I can’t say I’m immune from this reaction. I was deeply bothered by another scene, where Strayed encounters a couple of hunters who have run out of water, and her attempt to help them is rewarded with sexual harassment from the creepier of the two men. I spent the whole night after reading this scene trying to figure out how I would have responded in a similar situation, rehearsing different scenarios and different speeches in my head. Obviously the prospect of encountering a creeper who may or may not become actually aggressive is disturbing. But all these feelings of being disturbed, of being obsessed with the question of how to protect myself, of trying to gain control over my discomfort by creating a plan of defense, were my own. They had nothing to do with the book.

So here’s my advice for reviewers, if you want to avoid sounding like a jerk. Think about your reaction. I’m not saying you should second-guess yourself, and I’m certainly not saying that your reaction is wrong. But it might have more to do with you, your own fears, and your own difficulties dealing with unpleasant things than it has to do with the book. Your 2-star rating and your rant about how awful the book is might say a lot more about you than anything else.

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