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An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2010-12-06 05:31
Subject: [writing|process] The story belongs to the reader, redux
Security: Public
Tags:books, mainspring, process, writing
I've often said on this blog and in interviews that the story belongs to the reader. This is part of why I'm so sanguine about bad reviews.

What I mean by this is that no matter what my intentions for a work of fiction, no matter what I thought I did in that work, the experience the reader has is genuinely theirs. Even if their reaction is opposite to the one I intended. I don't come with the book or magazine or Web page, hanging about to explain what I meant. The words can, and do, and must speak for themselves.

This rubric of mine got foregrounded pretty hard when a reader sent me an email about their reaction to Mainspring Powell's | Barnes & Noble | Borders | Audible ]. We corresponded a bit, and with their kind permission, I am reproducing the original note.
i just read your novel Mainspring. I have read sci-fi all my life and I greatly enjoy the genre. I was attracted to your novel because your name was new to me and I am always searching for fresh new talent in this field. The cover art on the hardcover edition was great, too. That always helps.

In general I prefer novels that feature fascinating characters and a great adventure. Your novel hooked me on the adventure component quickly, and that is likely why I finished reading it. The character of Hethor, however, went from okay to boring. In addition, all the religious symbolism and biblical references and god this and god that got old quickly. I felt like I was reading an L. Ron Hubbard novel. If I had known you were going to spend a majority of the novel on some quasi-religious quest, I would have passed on it.

As such, I was considering getting the novel Escapement, but I'll pass. They are mis-shelving your work at the book store under Sci-Fi whereas it belongs under Religion.

My first, immediate reaction to this correspondence was to wince. My second reaction was to be delighted that this reader cared enough, especially in the negative, to send me a thoughtful message about their reaction. My third reaction was regret that they had not read the book the way I intended it to be read.

In part, my response to them ran:
Another small irony is that I have seen MAINSPRING reviewed both as Christian apologia (more or less how you read it, I believe) and as anti-Christian screed. I have a low enough sense of humor to find this dichotomy amusing.

The story this reader experienced wasn't quite the story I meant to tell. It wasn't quite the story I thought I was telling, for reasons I can elaborate on at another time if anyone cares to hear them. (Those details are not germane to my point today.) But it was the story they read.

(Note that I do distinguish between gross reading errors and variations of interpretations. Occasionally a review or other reader reaction will be misplaced on the face of the story, ie, a misreading. Those tend to annoy me somewhat, simply because in my experience [a] they're usually negative; and [b] my work is being judged on the basis of something I didn't say. Thankfully this is a fairly rare circumstance.)

Now extrapolate this interaction between me and my kind correspondent to other forms of reader reaction. A critique, for example, is a reader reaction from peers or mentors who presumably have some expertise in the field, and possibly some prior knowledge of that writer's work, speaking to the writer and also often to other peers gathered together. A review is a reader reaction within a relatively formalized setting, speaking not to the writer but to other potential readers. Editorial response — whether acceptance, rewrite request, hold, rejection or something else — is a reader reaction within a very narrow, formalized setting speaking solely to the writer.

But they are all reader reactions. And in every case, it is not your intention for the story but their reaction to it that counts, that drives the reaction.

Given how much angst can be expended over critiques, reviews, and editorial responses, I have to say that my rubric of the story belonging to the reader is a mighty helpful way to keep the fires of my own writerly angst banked down. It's better for my mental health and well-being, it keeps me from being knocked off center more often than happens anyway, and it allows me to embrace all those forms of response with (usually) little more than a twinge.

Yes, sometimes I get this wrong, too. But for the most part, the rubric serves me very well indeed. And I thank my reader and correspondent for reminding me so forcefully of this core principle of my auctorial identity.

Post A Comment | 13 Comments | | Flag | Link

User: cathshaffer
Date: 2010-12-06 13:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Sheesh. Where does a reader get off sending a critique to the author in email? Albeit you are "delighted" that the reader had such strong feelings, this is one I would have deleted without a reply. Ugh. If you don't like it, put it down and move on!

Of course your point about the story belonging to the reader is a taken.
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User: adelheid_p
Date: 2010-12-06 14:03 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
After starting to read your blog, I decided that I should read some of your books and picked up Trial of Flowers. For me, that was probably not the best choice. I find elements of it difficult to read and can only read a little at a time. However the story is intriguing enough that I want to stick with it. Perhaps Mainspring is the book I should have picked up first as I've been more interested in stories that deal with religious philosophy. I'm also currently reading the third book in Philip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy and enjoying it.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-12-06 14:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Well, yes. I don't think this reader made an error-of-comprehension. They applied a different, but as you said valid, interpretation than my intent. Which is why I find it so interesting they were moved to write to me. Most people go "meh" and chuck the book.
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Kari Sperring
User: la_marquise_de_
Date: 2010-12-06 14:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Fine post, sir.
I feel much the same -- once a book is out there, it's not mine any more (I suspect years of non-fiction, which attracts a lot of debate, has helped here). The only review of LWG that really wound me up was one where the reviewer jumped from the book to making assertions about me personally. Which I thought was kind of a) rude and b) daft, though I didn't respond (except in a rant at home to the beloved).
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CJ Marsicano (CJマルシカノ): Snoopy 'In my own write'
User: cjmarsicano
Date: 2010-12-06 18:02 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Snoopy 'In my own write'
I only have one complaint about Mainspring, and it isn't about the content... unlike it's sequel, it's not available on the Nook. (So I sprung for the paperback edition at my local B&N the other evening - last copy they had in stock!).
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Jay Lake: tech-sythnoscope
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-12-06 19:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
And sadly, I have no control or influence over my Tor titles going onto Nook or other ebook platforms.
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CJ Marsicano (CJマルシカノ)
User: cjmarsicano
Date: 2010-12-06 19:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I know. Lame, isn't it?
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Bruce E. Durocher II
User: bedii
Date: 2010-12-06 21:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
According to Burt Lancaster, when he and Richard Brooks were in their year-long drive to come up with a film script for Elmer Gantry (which from both their accounts consisted of Brooks coming up with a draft, Lancaster tearing apart any holes in it, the both of them swearing at one another, then Brooks reworking the script, ad infinitum) Lancaster met with Lewis to see what suggestions he might have for an adaptation. Lewis commented "Look at the reviews that appeared when it came out. There were some great critics then, like Mencken. They weren't always right, but they often saw something I didn't when I was budy writing the book, and that might be of use to you." I always felt that was the best way for an author to look at reviews of his work...
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Gwendolyn Clare
User: gwendolynclare
Date: 2010-12-07 01:21 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
As a (fairly new) writer, I completely agree. I actually find publication to be a delightful experiment in reader response -- readers come up with interpretations I never even thought of.

As a reader, though, I want to figure out what the author intended. Most art is fundamentally about communication, and miscommunication/misinterpretation is a failure mode. I think negative reader responses can often be boiled down to dissatisfaction with the level of writer-reader communication, ie "this story just didn't speak to me."
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User: msconduct
Date: 2010-12-07 05:00 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think the truth of this position becomes clear the first time you discover something has read something in your writing you didn't intend or weren't aware of putting there. The absurdity of one's immediate reaction of "But you're reading it wrong!" instantly becomes apparent.
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User: (Anonymous)
Date: 2010-12-07 17:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Part of what I liked about Mainspring is that it uses Christian themes and images in a way that's not Christian at all--the Brass Christ, for example. I found it eye-opening and parabolic. It was also fun to see what the religious quest looks like when related by someone who is not religious at all... if I may engage in a bit of the auctorial fallacy. So, yeah, I read it through different lenses than your correspondent.
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User: daveraines
Date: 2010-12-07 17:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
... and... the comment about Christian themes was mine. Dang it.

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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2010-12-07 17:29 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
And I just unscreened it... Thank you!
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