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  • Ken Ilgunas

My first book review

Ilgunas returns with a heavily researched, passionate argument about the need for America to emulate many other countries and allow its citizens to roam across the land, public as well as private… Earnest, thoughtful, and alarming in places—an optimistic work that urges America toward a profound cultural shift. — Kirkus review of my book, This Land Is Our Land

It’s such an odd thing, throwing your book out into the world. You may be content with the book, but there’s simply no way of knowing how the rest of the world will receive it.

You probably think it’s at least pretty good. Why else would you take the time to write your book and share it with the world if it’s not at least pretty good? But of course you have doubts, too. You, as writer, can certainly imagine critical responses because you’ve been criticizing your book all along.

So it’s nerve-wracking and exciting publishing a book. You have no idea if you’ve written a runaway bestseller or quite possibly the worst book ever written. That’s why early book reviews are so emotionally potentthey’re either confirmations of your greatest hopes or auguries of your greatest fears.

Two early book reviewers are Kirkus and Publisher’s Weekly. They publish reviews months before other book reviewers, and months before your book actually publishes. For my first book, Walden on Wheels, Publisher’s Weekly called my writing as thick as “pancake batter.” Kirkus called it a “middling” memoir.

I hope you don’t mind if I take the liberty of placing yourself in my shoes to show you how traumatizing these early reviews were. Imagine yourself as a first-time 29-year-old author. You’re confident enough to take on such a project, but you’re also insecure enough to be terrified about everything that could possibly go wrong. You’ve just devoted two-and-a-half years of your life to this book. You have no idea if your book is any good. And then you read your first two reviews in which the reviewers savage your book. You wonder if you have any business calling yourself a writer. Should you decide you’ve improperly labeled yourself as a “career writer,” you will now have to start from scratch if you decide that it’s more responsible to become a teacher or a nurse, due to the fact that you have no other training or useful skills. Meanwhile, all your friends have been in their careers and have been watching their incomes rise for a good many years. Worst of all: You won’t get to read another review for another two months.

This all triggered a rather unpleasant 30-year life crisis, which lasted about three months. The crux of the crisis was this: What am I going to do if I’m not made out to be a writer?

I recognize now how I was wrong to compare my life to my peers’ lives, as if life is a race in which I needed to keep up or get ahead. I recognize now how it’s perfectly alright to start a new career at any age. I recognize now that many authors fail early and succeed later. Yet my feelings were very real and human and ordinary: I wanted financial security; I wanted to write only if other people thought my stuff was worth reading; more than anything I wanted direction—I wanted to know what I was and what I was supposed to be doing.

Thankfully, the book did quite well. Other critics liked it. Amazon readers gave it mostly positive reviews. It sold (and continues to sell) fairly well. And I got a good deal of press. Taking all of the above into consideration, I now feel confident enough about Walden on Wheels to say that those early book reviewers were wrong, even if my prose can indeed be as thick as pancake batter. The success of the book helped me get past my crisis, and while I’ve wavered over the years on the subject of my career path, I more or less committed to the life of the writer. This realization (let’s also call it a decision) that I am a career writer has done more to release me of existential anxiety than any other.

For my second book, Trespassing across America, Kirkus called it “preachy” and I don’t think Publisher’s Weekly even bothered to review it. These reviews didn’t bother me so much. My confidence was stronger and dealing with early criticisms was easier.

The first review of my latest book, This Land Is Our Land (publishing April 10) just came out, and it was one of the nicer reviews I’ve read. Never before has anyone acknowledged my research (the reviewer calls it “heavily researched”), and the reviewer was kind enough to notice the grandness of my ambitions and acknowledge that I was aiming for a “profound cultural shift.” Indeed!

This early review brings me a great deal of comfort. For now at least.


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