I like my first novel. It tells what I feel to be an important story, told from perspectives that I think are often underrepresented. As I wrote for Girl Who Reads the other day, it bears some striking parallels to other stories that I’ve since discovered, but I still like to think that it stands in its own right as something unique, sensitive and special.
However, one of the reasons it stands out, I think, is because of some of the stylistic and structural choices I made while writing and plotting the story. And this might not be all that good of a thing, as it turns out.
You see, while I’m pleased with 22 Scars, others are not so enamored. And it isn’t because they didn’t like the story, or the writing. It’s because they felt it was too difficult to understand, and to connect with the characters.
Since it was published in November 2017, 22 Scars has achieved 10 reviews between Amazon and Amazon UK, and 26 on Goodreads. While I recognize this isn’t exactly a deal-breaker (or a deal-maker, for that matter), I feel like it’s enough for me to start gleaning some patterns and look to why people like—and don’t like—22 Scars.
Let’s start with some of the positives. From the reviews listed on Goodreads, the following comments seem to be closely related:
“I do think a strong part of the book were the diary entries.”
” I liked the end of the story, with the use of diaries.”
I really appreciated how all of the elements came together in the end.”
“[The diaries] really helped to show the progression of how the depression came on.”
“It describes manic depression in the most understandable way.”
“It was so vivid that, it makes the reader feel helpless.”
Clearly there are elements that people have enjoyed. The ending diaries seem to be a major hit, and the realism with which depression and self-harm is described is another.
But it isn’t all roses and sunshine (of course, nor is the book):
“It felt kind of disjointed.”
“The use of alternating storylines was a bit confusing.”
“My only complaint was the timeline of the story overall.”
“Usually then you get a deep dive into what the character was thinking at all times. This book didn’t really go there.”
“For a character-driven story, I felt it difficult to connect with the characters due to the style.”
“I felt a bit lost and couldn’t connect to the characters.”
I find these passive and negative reviews interesting, because they all seem to highlight a similar theme. These people aren’t disappointed with the story, or the concept, or even the writing itself; they’re more bothered by the difficulty in following the story, and in empathizing with the main character(s).
The reason I find this interesting is that these are both things I chose to do very deliberately. I wanted a disjoint between the two main timelines so that the reader would struggle to put two and two together; I also wanted the reader to feel nothing when reading about Amy—specifically, the drab, numbing nothing that comes with depression.
And I think some people got this. They’re the ones who seemed to genuinely enjoy the story. And some people didn’t.
You see, I didn’t set out to write a difficult novel. Or at least, not difficult to read. I knew the subject matter would be challenging, but that was my only intent. I specifically chose a simplistic narrative style, with short, easy-to-digest sentences and words. In fact, according to readable.io, the book is on average written at a fifth grade level, with the most challenging chapter being at a seventh grade level (one chapter even ranks at a first grade level).
Yet most reviews don’t mention a difficulty in understanding the dialogue and narrative itself. In fact, one person specifically pointed out:
“The author’s style is easy to read.”
So it leads me to wonder—what makes a book difficult to read? What makes it a challenge to get into? And why only for some people?
I suppose some of it comes down to expectation; with a book as controversial as 22 Scars, dealing with abuse, depression and self-harm, perhaps people are expecting a detailed analysis of the sufferer’s mental state. Perhaps, compared to other, similar novels, the lack of first-person perspective for the main character makes it difficult to empathize.
People with these expectations are going to be disappointed by 22 Scars, because that isn’t its goal. Those books exist; they’ve already been written. The purpose of 22 Scars is to highlight the destruction of familial abuse, depression and self-harm across entire communities, and not just on one person. The reason you don’t see Amy’s point of view for most of the book is to keep her isolated, lonely and miserable. That’s what depression is, and those who see depressed people like that are those who perpetuate their despair: you can’t help if you can’t understand.
But it isn’t the reader’s fault if they don’t get it; it isn’t their fault that I didn’t make my point well enough. Perhaps it’s just too much to ask that every reader understand the point of the book without an explanation. Not even summer blockbusters get that entirely, I suppose; and this isn’t beach reading.
All I can do is hope to market the book as best I can, and hope that people just simply don’t hate it. After all, I’ve had this:
“Unfortunately, this is not a book for me.”
But I’ve also had this:
“Just wow. [Fantastically] written book. Literally held my breath at many parts of the book and almost broke down at the end.”
Where does that leave me? Well … with a 3.69 on Goodreads, I suppose. Which is a little worse than Thirteen Reasons Why (4.00), but about the same as Cut (3.76), so really I ought to be proud of my little achievement.