Thursday, June 11, 2009

Reader Reactions


Recently, a novelist friend of mine shared one of her fan letters with me. It was from a woman who'd been blind and had recovered the sight of one eye. She raved about my friend's last book, specifically about its realism--the protagonist had an accident that severely diminished her eyesight--even going so far as to say she was sure my friend had had experience with visual impairment herself or knew someone who had, so well had she captured what that world was like.

Wow--I can understand why my pal was so touched by that note. It affirmed her world-building skills, her meticulous research and ability to use real-life detail to create a sympathetic story. By "sympathetic," I mean a tale that the reader identifies with, nods her head to, thinking "yes, that's true, that's how things really are, and I didn't know how to articulate it."

Before I started writing fiction seriously (that is, taking the time to learn the business and investing the time in finishing manuscripts), I attended a writing workshop at a prestigious university. During the two-day program, participants critiqued each others' short stories, with occasional words of guidance thrown in by the teacher, an author of a published book of short stories.

There are only two things that stand out in my memory from that workshop. One was an absolutely wonderful magical realism story written by a man in his fifties or sixties who, I was extremely chagrined to learn, had never had his works published--they'd been rejected by literary magazines left and right. (The rant I could insert here about this is for another day, another post!)

The other memorable moment came when our teacher observed that what writers should strive for is not soaring prose so much as the head-nodding moments, those points in the story where the reader immediately "gets it," and is grateful for the author's ability to articulate whatever "it" is.

My favorite reviews and reader reactions always come from "head nodders" -- readers who not only loved my storytelling but identified with or understood thoroughly the threads that run through the book or the deeper story or some telling detail that I'd inserted to illustrate a point about life or love.

But, no matter how tickled I am at eliciting those reactions, I know there will always be some readers for whom my writing is not their cup of tea. That's okay -- and their thumbs-downs are okay (as long as they don't get story details wrong, like the woman who said my book was...well, no need to go into that...). We all have different tastes.

In fact, even the most celebrated stories aren't universally loved. This was reinforced for me recently when I decided to reread for the gajillionth time (okay, maybe just the sixth time, but that's a lot, right?)a classic, Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, trying to see in it what lots of other folks see. While I love other books from that time period--most notably the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald -- and I enjoyed Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, I was always left cold by Arms.

So I tried again. And liked it a bit more. But still remain an agnostic as far as believing in its greatness. Is that heresy?

As a reader, what classics have you had trouble with? What good and bad reactions have you had to the greats of literature?

13 comments:

  1. I've never been particularly fond of Hemmingway, preferring Steinbeck--particularly Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. Fun stuff!

    ReplyDelete
  2. As I have confessed here before: me + Jane Austen = not a good match. I just don't get what the hoopla is all about. I know that's blasphemous in romance circles, but there you have it. I've tried. Really I have...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Strangely enough, Jane Eyre, though a good Gothic story (and I've been accused of writing Gothics, so I ought to love her) just don't do much for me. I'm okay with it, I just don't love it the way I love Jane Austen.

    And it has absolutely nothing to do with Charlotte Bronte's famous put-down of Jane Austen's writing. Really. Nothing at all!!

    ReplyDelete
  4. I did a term paper on Hemingway--a forced immersion. While I can't say I "like" him, from a craft perspective, he influenced me profoundly.

    Hemingway is much imitated. Short, choppy sentences are de riguer (and signs of macho) in some literary circles. However, his genius lay not in sparse prose, but in the pellucid focus of those "head-nodding moments" you speak of.

    With Hemingway, they're often tiny--blink and you'll miss them--and always emotional.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I loved Gone with the Wind, as far as the characterizations, but I had to skip a lot of the descriptions and war stuff.....

    ReplyDelete
  6. Marie, Jane Austen has not excited me, but maybe I need to revisit her the way I did with Hemingway recently.

    Donna, I'm a huge JANE EYRE fan. I didn't realize Charlotte Bronte had put down Austen's writing!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Libby, Charlotte wrote, in response to a letter from George Lewes in which he took her to task for not liking Austen's work, "You say I must familiarise my mind with the fact that "Miss Austen is not a poetess, has no 'sentiment'... I must "learn to acknowledge her as one of the greatest artists, of the greatest painters of human character, and one of the writers with the nicest sense of means to an end that ever lived. The last point only will I ever acknowledge. ... Miss Austen being, as you say, without "sentiment", without poetry, maybe is sensible (more real than true), but she cannot be great." (my italics)

    The differences between their styles were too great, perhaps, for Charlotte to enjoy Austen, one all emotion and sensibility, the other all elegance and restraint. Perhaps I've known too many emotional drama queens to enjoy the 'sensibility' aspect, and maybe that's why I prefer Miss Austen's plea for restraint! LOL.

    ReplyDelete
  8. You know, I'm beginning to wonder if this is almost like a "Ginger vs. Mary Ann" kind of thing, where you either love/identify with Austen or Bronte but rarely both. I know several Austen fans who don't get into JANE EYRE that much at all.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Or Veronica versus Betty!!

    Archie is going to propose to Veronica... oh, no!

    ROTFLMAO

    ReplyDelete
  10. I used to like the Brontes more than Austen. I loved Hemingway but didn't like Fitzgerald. And I hated Lewis Carol, CS Lewis and Tolkien. But when I went back later to authors I'd disliked I found I really enjoyed reading them. Maybe I just had to grow into them. (Didn't like fairy tales much as a kid either.)

    ReplyDelete
  11. I have to say that real readers reactions, people who read my books and feel compelled to write to me personally to express their pleasure, are the most rewarding comments on books.
    As for reactions to books, I hate sad endings. Too depressing, so Gone with the Wind was a big disappointment after all that commitment to reading the whole thing.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I wonder if readers divide into Hemingway vs Fitzgerald and Austen vs Bronte factions. LOL! I loved Fitzgerald and still re-read him. I've read virtually everything he's written. I have only read Charlotte Bronte's JANE EYRE, though. Tried VILLETTE and put it down - couldn't get into it. And I can't say I've ever really enjoyed her sister's WUTHERING HEIGHTS.

    ReplyDelete
  13. It took me a long time to get into Charles Dickens... I think I had to read Great Expectations in high school and I HATED every minute of it!

    But then for some odd reason, I picked it up one weekend not too long ago, and I LOVED IT! I never realized how funny Dickens' social commentary was!

    I don't think I will ever understand the hoopla over Hemingway. After I had my Dickens epiphany, I tried it with The Sun Also Rises and it just didn't change anything. Perhaps I'm too much of a Fitzgerald fan! I also can't stand Wuthering Heights. But I do love both Austen and Charlotte Bronte...

    ReplyDelete