reading, writing

The Reader Makes the Book

I’ve known for a long time that every reader sees a book differently. I may really enjoy a book that makes you want to hold your nose with one hand and gingerly pick it up with thumb and forefinger of the other hand to transport rapidly to the trash. It’s part of the reason I told my daughter that each reviewer needs to be as honest as they can be, because when people are looking for something they will like, they find a reviewer they trust and follow them. My daughter was talking about reviewing fanfiction – her passion for reading material at the moment – and I was talking about my blog, but it’s the same thing. I can’t give a book a glowing review just because I know and like the author (although honestly it will color my reading experience, but more about that in a moment), because that would be a betrayal of my readers, who have come to see my reviews. If you know a reviewer’s tastes align with yours, you trust them to deliver the goods when you’re looking for something to read.

However, a lot of this has to do with the reader making the book. The author writes it, with sweat and tears and struggle (and maybe blood from papercuts). The reader makes it into something the author may never have intended. I know that I’ve been startled at reviews which said they saw things in my writing I didn’t deliberately put in there. I have had people read things into my books that I explicitly didn’t write into them. Because every reader has a preconceived notion about the book when they pick it up. Some readers want to see stereotypes and characteristics, and are not happy when they don’t get them. This is why I get negative reviews for having dared write an Urban Fantasy with a male POV character. This is, I suspect, part of why fan fiction and spin-off novels are so very popular. The readers know what to expect, they get it, and they are happy. With original work, they might not get what they expect. This makes them uncomfortable.

Not every reader is like that, of course. But even those who are seeking the fresh and original may not ‘get’ what the author is doing with a book. Sometimes, as with Larry Correia’s Son of the Black Sword, this is because they aren’t familiar with the culture and mythology that form part of the framework of the story. I talked with someone who was incredulous about the casual attitudes toward death in the book – the killings of entire villages. I shrugged, and suggested that they look at India’s long history. Caste systems aren’t pretty. Caste systems that look at the lower classes as less than dogs? Really not pretty. Because that’s part of the story Correia was writing. Most people aren’t familiar at all with much beyond Buddha, elephants, and maybe Holi when it comes to India.

And this is some of why my kids, despite being literally surrounded by my books, aren’t going to pick them up and read them. Or if they do, they won’t get out of them what I do. It’s not just that I have decades more experience than they do. It isn’t the differences in education – mine was very unconventional and much more classically based than theirs – it’s that each reader is unique. I had a moment this morning where I opened a webcomic, and in three panels, found myself in tears. Later in the morning I asked my 14 you daughter to take a look, and she said , ‘oh, that’s sad.’  It didn’t have the impact on her that it did on me, as I’m at the age where mortality stalks my parents, and even myself and the First Reader.

All the factors that make each reader unique also color their reading experience. I’m very aware that when I’m reading a book written by someone I consider a friend, I being my emotional attachment to the person with me into the story. Contrariwise, I cannot read books by certain authors whose personalities I find despicable and their actions loathsome. No matter how ‘good’ the book, I will always struggle to read it, so largely I don’t bother. I have a few books I don’t read, because while I enjoyed them earlier, the author has shown themselves to be someone not worth my time. But this is, again, a case of the reader making the book. Most people have no idea that this author they enjoy is known for attacking reviewers and egging her fans on to attack as well. I can’t respect that, but it’s not my job to tell everyone else to not read those books. I just ignore them.

But in the end, this all goes into my writing process. I know what my fans like, and I try to give that to them. I’m always aware that I cannot predict their reactions to what I’m writing, not fully. With a few people, sure, I know them well enough to figure their reactions about my work. I don’t want to limit my work to just them – and this is also why I try to restrain the impulse to insert ‘reader cookies’ because while some parts of my fans will get it, chortle gleefully, and look for more, other swathes of readers will be confused and thrown out of the tale.

And now I’m going to go back to writing, and resist the urge to insert gratuitous exploding spaceships. I feel like this story is slow-paced, but my alpha readers tell me it’s not. So maybe it’s just the pace I’m writing at. Write faster! Read more! Write reviews…

Oh, wait…

11 thoughts on “The Reader Makes the Book

      1. I have a hard time fitting them into my works. I don’t do Mil SF (though that seems to be changing — Brad is a bad influence), so explosions need other causes. And I have a rule: the astronauts and rocket scientists in my stories are smarter than me and NOT incompetent, so they’ll catch all the easy mistakes. If there’s an exploding spaceship, I have to justify it.

        I do have one in a story that’s sitting at Analog (and I have high hopes for it). It required an AI that had been reprogrammed by mission controllers on Earth because “they knew better” than the boots on the ground. Smart, competent people can still be arrogant and petty.

          1. It’s the bridge story between “Not Close Enough” (my first Analog sale) and my Carver and Aames stories. It’s the story of Carver and Aames (and Smitty and Chuks and Gale, all seen in other stories) on a Mars mission gone wrong. It tells how Carver and Aames became a team while keeping their crew alive.

            I’m pretty confident about this one. But then, I always am…

  1. Cedar, yeah, that webcomic was more than sad. I am so glad that we are living this close to your Grandma so we can spend time with her; so glad we got to live with Great-grandma the last few years of her life; so sorry that I didn’t get to see much of my dad the last few years of his life. It’s hard having family scattered across the country….

      1. Not going to ask which webcomic… I don’t need sad right now (favorite sister is waiting on biopsy results to find out whether she’s still in remission).

        Anyway! I’ll be swinging back to a review of yours in, let me see, three Sundays from now. Which would help you out more – The God’s Wolfling, or Pixie Noir? (Either one, I’ll enjoy rereading both of them.)

        1. Whichever you like, but I would be interested to see your take on TGW – I do actually plan a third book in the world, so that would be a helpful thing to read as I’m gearing toward it.

          1. TGW it is. Um. I’ve been slowed by the weather, but I’ll try to get the “technical” review done too for the blog.

            Besides, that will let me re-read Pixie when I can afford to buy the rest of the series too.

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