Can personal experience ruin a book?

Right now I’m gonna be talking about…

feelings nothing more than feelings.png

…you have been warned.

So obviously it’s coming up to Valentine’s Day and I’m thinking about *feelings* more, but really what inspired this post was that recently I read a book that I didn’t relate to. Now that’s hardly noteworthy… except that, without going into detail, I had personal experience of the subject matter and really should have related to it.

It got me wondering if personal experience can actually ruin a book. Not in that it might have “too much” of an effect– I will give a story credit for affecting me emotionally and even for taking me to dark places- but when it fails to hit that (sometimes excruciating) mark I will frankly be a bit peeved. When a book holds back on the painful punches, when it simplifies things, when it moralises- I feel a million miles away from it. It’s no good if difficult stories are prettied up for the sake of the audience. And it’s only more noticeable if I can say “no no no, it’s not like that at all”.

That’s not to say every experience is the same- but sometimes the way a character or story is constructed just doesn’t add up. Take Thirteen Reasons Why– a story written to reflect on the motivations of a friend who committed suicide. For me, and others, it missed the mark, because not only did it trivialise the reasons for suicide, it felt like it was ramming a message down my throat and the character’s emotions were way off (to name a few of the thirteen issues I had with it). In short, I just did not find it relatable.

Now none of this is to say that you have to have personal experience to write these difficult or traumatic stories. As someone that likes fantasy I don’t think it should always be “write what you know”- heck if that were the case Harry Potter wouldn’t exist (unless JK Rowling is secretly a boy wizard abused by his relatives). But- and here’s a big BUT- the author *really* needs to have empathy and go to all of the dark places inside the head of someone in a horrible situation- otherwise, what’s the point? If an author can’t write about someone’s struggles, then they should give their protagonist an easy life and be done with it. Don’t ride on the coattails of something difficult for the sake of being *deep and meaningful*- it will only do the issue the author is trying to bring to light a disservice.

Ok, that got a little bit more ranty than I meant it to. But what do you think? Am I the only one that has this problem? Let me know in the comments!


51 thoughts on “Can personal experience ruin a book?

  1. sophiethestark says:

    I absolutely agree. It would be impossible not to let our emotions dictate our enjoyment while reading a story, no matter how much we tried. If something is not relatable or feels off, then it can be written in the most beautiful and profound of ways and still not deliver.
    Great post! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  2. thesarahdoughty says:

    Such a shame. If you’re going to write about something that is most likely very real and visceral to people, you can’t shove it down their throats. The concept of show don’t tell comes into play here. If you can’t emphasize or understand beyond ‘this is bad’ you probably shouldn’t write it.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. The Paperback Princess says:

    I think it depends on the experience/subject matter. There are so many variables that can either make or break the story. I prefer a storyline that either the author went through ALOT of trouble researching to make it seem real, or they could actually relate to. I hate it when an author Sugar coats things. That’s when it makes you say “You have no idea how it really goes.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Yeah that’s true. I also think that maybe (and I’m speculating here) there can be a lot of misleading articles out there and so even if an author does research, and I’d like to assume they do, they might come out with the wrong information and then use that to grandstand on an issue. Or they might just misunderstand it. That and sugar coating will make me think they’ve got no idea how it really goes. Hope that makes sense

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Nicola Alter says:

    That would be a very frustrating experience. I don’t think I’ve had the same thing where it was a difficult subject matter that I had direct experience with being poorly handled, though I have had something a tiny bit similar: basically it was where a particular country and its history were being represented in the book, and (while not being from that place myself) I’d had some experience living there, knowing people from that culture and learning the language/history. The author had ancestry in the country but the book read like they’d never actually been there or understood the people/place… like they were working from every film and movie and book they’d seen and producing another fairly indistinct representation that didn’t feel real to me, rather than providing a deeper insight into the history and the experiences of individual people within that history.

    But given I didn’t actually grow up in the country, or really know the extent of the author’s experience, and given the book was super popular and beloved, I didn’t feel really qualified to say anything about it and thought maybe I was just wrong about the whole thing! It still meant I couldn’t personally enjoy it though and it kind of frustrated me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Ah I can understand that- and I’ve been there. For me I just end up feeling like something is a bit off when it’s not something I directly have experience with. I also think in that case it’s enlightening to read people’s reviews who are actually from that place- cos that can shed light on something that may just feel a bit off to an outsider. But yes, frustrating is the exact word for it!!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Nicola Alter says:

        Yes that was the feeling I had – that it was a bit off, but because I was an outsider myself I couldn’t really say why. That’s a good idea to look at some reviews of people who are from the country, don’t know why that never occurred to me before but I will indeed go do that!

        Anyway, I’m sorry you had a frustrating experience with that book… at least it provided some food for thought, and maybe if you point out these things it helps writers think twice before using a difficult/horrible experience as a plot device without really exploring the emotional effects of it properly (I know I will keep this in mind more now when writing).

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Elou Carroll says:

    I can totally see where you’re coming from. If I’m not engaged enough, I read really slowly and it becomes a battle to even finish the book. It’s definitely especially hard if I’m not engaging with something I’ve gone through personally. That’s definitely where research comes in handy. I think the ‘write what you know’ thing is true, but in that you need to get to know what you’re writing about, rather than just sticking to things you’ve experienced. It’s all in the research.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Liam @ Hey Ashers! says:

    You said it beautifully, and I wish you could politely tweet this post at every author and would-be author currently writing.

    This post immediately made me think of The Wrath and the Dawn, which I read a little after my best friend Lizzy died (unexpectedly, three days after the birth of her only child). The book’s heroine is motivated solely by the loss of her best friend—but is so overcome by the murderous king’s hotness that the dead friend becomes an afterthought within a few days of meeting the guy. I’m STILL furious when I think about it. It’s been just over two years since Lizzy died, and I’m FINALLY not dissolving into messy tears every other day. The Wrath and the Dawn treats the loss of that sister-friendship with absolutely no respect or empathy, and I despise it.

    Thank you for writing this; it needs to be read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Thank you so much for your comment and thank you for sharing. I’m so sorry for the loss of your friend and that must have been awful to read that book after experiencing that. I really can’t stand when things like that are used as a plot device- especially if the character will just be over it really quickly, because they have the attention span that lasts only as long as it takes for a hot guy to walk into their peripheral vision.
      As I said in this, I didn’t feel comfortable writing on the personal subject (hence why I won’t be writing a review on the book in question) but felt like I had to say something about it- even if I had to avoid talking about the thing that bothered me altogether. At least that way, I hope, I could draw some attention to the issue of writing books like this and get something positive out of reading emotionally lazy books.
      Anyhoo, you didn’t ask for my life story 😉 , thanks again for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Liam @ Hey Ashers! says:

        “I really can’t stand when things like that are used as a plot device- especially if the character will just be over it really quickly, because they have the attention span that lasts only as long as it takes for a hot guy to walk into their peripheral vision.”

        I want this embroidered on a pillow.

        I fully support your choice not to reveal which book and life event brought this topic up; I’m just so glad you brought it up at all. Keep up the awesome work! We need it.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Marie says:

    This is such a good and important post. I think it’s so important that authors are aware of people’s personal experiences – not just their own, if they are writing about something they’re particularily familiar with -, in order to try and make sure most people can relate to it, and at least depict something that feels real and accurate. I think it’s really, really important. You’re right about everything here 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Lashaan and Trang (Bookidote) says:

    Personal experience can both enhance and ruin a book. Definitely. I can see how a book can fail to do it “right” in order to make those that are most susceptible to understand x or y feel understood/comprehended. I mean, an author could easily make a book about child abuse and fail to understand an abused child and how to portray him so that people who had actually known the experience/known close relatives or friends that have lived the issue will be able to “feel” something out of reading the book and following a certain character in their adventures.

    You know.. This sort of reminds me of this “debate” where People of Color should be the “only” people to write about the experience of People of Color. It’s not the exact same subject as the one you’re talking about here, but the idea of being able to truly “empathize” is definitely something an author should know about themselves before starting that draft!

    Excellent post! 🙂

    – Lashaan

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      Yes- that’s very true! Yes, your example of child abuse was very apt. I think one of the main issues with this is that people can get bogged down in the research phase and kind of miss out on focusing on the emotions a little. Ah that’s true- it’s a similar issue. Definitely! Thank you so much!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. lostartofreadingblog says:

    This is really interesting. It’s funny when it comes to more factual things it drives me nuts when it seems they didn’t do their research. For example my dad was very sick and ended up in the ICU waiting for a transplant, so any time there is something about a transplant in a book or TV show, I find myself saying thats not how it actually works.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Donna says:

    I feel empathy is the key. I have the feeling sometimes an author will be a subject because it’s controversial or serves a purpose and offer us a lesson without really doing its homework or trying to get real experience through his story. I agree on the fact your personal experience can ruin a book. If a story is written on a subject I would/should relate to but the book totally fails, it might be due to the fact my experience cannot take anything from what was written, or that I disagree so much it has a contrary effect and I just give up. That’s why it’s important to make sure the experience you write about, whether you went through them yourself or not, are well-depicted enough for people to FEEL and get that empathy emotion going all crazy and pushing your buttons and tickling your lachrymal glands or whatever. If a book talks about something I am familiar with, I’m gonna be expecting, I’m gonna be picky, that’s my experience talking.
    I have no idea if I make sense because I’m tired xD

    Liked by 1 person

    • theorangutanlibrarian says:

      oh gosh yes, you are so right. I definitely feel that sometimes writers jump on the bandwagon of something just to feel “relevant” and it gets on my wick. Ahh yes so true- I *love* the way you put that!!! Yes totally agree!! And don’t worry, it made sense!! Thanks so much for your comment!!


  11. Kat Impossible says:

    I don’t think the post was ranty at all, it was very much on point! Sometimes there is a lack of connection with what the author is writing and I was someone who didn’t click with 13 Reasons Why either, but a lot of people did. So, I don’t know what it is really about. I do, however, agree that empathy is key. You can’t write about only the things you know. Quite frankly, not everyone’s life and experiences are that story-worthy, but if you have the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes? That is more than necessary.

    Liked by 1 person

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    Liked by 1 person

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