Learning from things you don't like

I had a birthday recently, and a dear relative gave me a considerate gift: a memoir by a famous film critic. I was really excited about reading it, I read it, and I really didn't like it.

Whenever I don't like something, I find it useful to figure out precisely why I don't like it. In part, that's something I just do, but I also hope it helps me to not write something like that myself. (And nothing makes a criticism of my work resonate more to me than seeing someone else do the exact same thing.) Call it mindful reading--I think it's valuable to writers to not simply experience something, but to figure out why they experienced it as they did.

I think the first part of the problem with this book is that the film critic is famous. I can't really think of a truly interesting celebrity memior (with the exception of Candice Bergman's, but she wrote mostly about being the child of a celebrity--now those kinds of memoirs have some meat to them). This book even starts with the standard, "Oh, now, you--I don't think my life is worthy of a memoir! But if you insist...." No celebrity ever seems to harken to that little voice saying, This just isn't that interesting.

The lessons: 1. Listen to that little voice: If you're bored, the reader is really bored. 2. Try not to assume that the reader is automatically going to find your main character interesting just because they are the main character. 3. A striving character (even if they're just striving to be normal) is a lot more interesting than a character who has made it and now sits around, contentedly counting their money, reflecting on how swimmingly it all went and how totally excellent they are.

Another issue is that the book lacks any kind of meaningful organization or theme. There is no main story, and stories even get repeated because the book is basically a wad of stand-alone pieces. This guy writes short pieces well, but this is long, and he's hopeless. You see this a lot with writers: Most have one length that they write well. I would argue that Flannery O'Connor should have stuck with short stories, Carolyn Hax should stick with mini-essays, Neil Gaiman should stick with novels, and Gloria Naylor should do the same thing as Gaiman. In some cases, a writer might not write badly at another length, but they don't write as well as they do at their prime length. In other cases (such as this memoir), they're not just out of their length--they're out of their depth as well.

The lesson: Stay with the length you're good at. I should warn you that from a commercial perspective, this is terrible, terrible advice: No one will publish novellas, and one standard way to get a novel published is to first publish a bunch of short stories in periodicals. Contemporary self-publishing has led to novellas suddenly being much more commercially viable, so maybe it will allow more writers to do what they do best. Fingers crossed!

The final issue was a low signal-to-noise ratio: Not much interesting was going on with the story, so he threw in a bunch of crap to make it interesting! Never works--never ever. When he was a 20-something, he had sex! And then had it some more! And he drank a lot! (Wow, that's original.) He knew a lot of crazy people! People who smoked pot! He traveled places! And he met movie stars! Who generally weren't that interesting, and he mostly didn't know them very well! But they're in there!

The sad thing is, he's got the makings of an interesting story with the drinking--he eventually went into AA. But despite the fact that he mentions the drinking a lot, he doesn't develop it: He doesn't really examine why he drank, he doesn't get much into how the drinking affected his life, and he doesn't tell you why he decided to stop.

The lesson: Pick a story. Tell that story. Everything else goes in the trash.