Saturday, January 14, 2012

Whose book is it, anyway?

Back when I was an English Lit major in college there was some shocking tale going around about a conference where a professor was giving a big talk on a famous book (I can't remember the who's and what's).

The crow symbolizes chocolate,
Anyway, the author happened to be in the audience. And this author stood up and corrected some assumption--a bird symbolized this and not that or whatever. And the professor giving the paper told the author to sit back down--nothing the author had to say was relevant. Like it didn't matter what the author had to say, what the author intended. Even though it was the author's book!

It seemed so brazen of the professor to shut the author up like that. I wrestled with that tale in my mind for a long time.

Eventually I came to love what it meant. It said to me that a book becomes its own thing in the world once it leaves the author's hands. The book, once published, no longer belongs to the author. It belongs to the reader.*

That idea seemed so revolutionary to me. And cool!

During writing, of course, the author brings things to the book. But then after it's published, it's the reader's turn to bring things to the book. There's no place for the author in that, because it's between the reader and the book.

Readers are always finding things in books that authors didn't intend, but if they are honestly there for the reader, then they are honestly there. I really like that, as an author and as a reader. Sometimes it's an intensely personal meaning, or a super-smart insight that a reader finds in a book. Other times, readers find things that are offensive to them, or tedious, or boring, or characters who push their buttons. And readers of different generations bring different things to books, just as readers of different political, geographical, and socio-economic circumstances do.

Just today, I had a twitter exchange with an author about a sex scene in one of her books. I had found the scene to be hot, but also profound for a specific reason having to do with the plot. She felt it was just sex. Sorry @authorfriend, I read the book, and the sex scene was hot AND profound.

Not that she's wrong. It's just one point of view, and it doesn't happen to be mine.

Hey Craigslist people, get your feet the hell off the couch!
I often think of this whole thing when these review kerfluffles break out, where authors become upset about reviews. (Even though, gah! a spectrum of reviews, both good and bad, help readers find books they like, and that's good for authors.)

I'm grateful for every review no matter what. These days. I'll read a review now and then if I'm invited. (And, I'm not going to act like I don't enjoy hearing people enjoy my books or reading a positive review - of course I do!) But in general, my thinking is reviews don't involve me and I don't seek them out.

Sort of like, if I sold a couch on Craigslist, I'm not going to go visit the buyer and monitor if they're putting their feet on it or whatever. Because it's just not mine anymore.

I guess that's why I'm writing--to add that point, because I find it freeing. I mean, it's been said over and over that authors should not respond to negative reviews (well, they can, but not in writing). It's been said over and over that  authors should not troll for reviews. Turn off Google alerts. Focus on the next book. Reviews are for readers.

I guess I would go a step further, and say that a review, positive or negative, doesn't have anything to do with the author whatsoever! It's between the reader and the book. It's about the reader bringing things of their own  to the book. You're no longer involved. This is a point that can be liberating for both readers and authors.

Or at least, it's been liberating for me!! LOL. Maybe it's totally obvious to everybody else.

Wow, how did this turn into such a screed? It was supposed to be a short anecdote. ~Crane eyes synopsis she was supposed to be writing this whole time~ Anyway, happy Saturday people!
*Just to clarify, when I say a book belongs to the reader, I mean in terms of perception--I don't mean literally, as in the author doesn't deserve to be paid anything for their work.
Images: Otani Oniji by Toshusai Sharaku, Edo era, Japan, Wiki Commons; No. 296, 10x18 cm (4x8"), Woodcut / Hand-Made Paper, Edition 100 · 17.02.1983 - 24.02.1983 by Werner Stuerenburg. wiki commons.


lisabea said...

Don't read reviews. It should be rule number one in the handbook.

Skye Warren said...

Hah! Maybe she was trying to be modest? Sometimes I will joke that I write smut, as a dig to the people who use the term as an insult. But really, I still try to infuse more meaning to my work than just sex.

But it reminded me of this old interview I saw of Britney Spears. This was back when she was still 17 or whatever, way before melt-downs. She had released her first album, to great success, and her second album was called "Oops, I did it again." The 'Oops' song was about a girl who breaks another heart, so the interviewer asks whether there was a double meaning there, like she'd made another hit album. Britney looks puzzled and says no, that was the title of the first single. And then there's this awkward moment.

Alexia561 said...

So sometimes a cigar is just a cigar? *grin*

I understand what you're saying, but think it would be awfully hard to totally let go of your baby.

Carolyn Crane said...

LB: Totally. Tho, I did it on my first book. Did you?

Skye: Hah, sometimes I call my work smutty, too! It's nice to sort of take back that word. Also. I can just imagine the Britney awkward moment!

Alexia: You are right, it is hard! As shown by the meltdowns. It's just human to want your stuff to be liked. But, in the long run I think it's easier to let go.

Brenda Hyde said...

I remember hearing that Tolkien was always tired of people asking him to explain things from his book that people thought were deep and profound--he insisted he didn't write it that way. Then again it sounded like he was a deep and profound guy so maybe his philosophy came through in his writing. How can it not. But I can imagine it would get tiring being grilled about this type of thing all the time.

As far as all the hubbub lately- I've missed it all somehow, and I'm glad. It's never a good thing to get pissy about review in public if you're a writer. Some people hate my nonfiction writing style--others love it. I figure to quote my teens "haters gonna hate". LOL

Joanna Chambers aka Tumperkin said...

Great post. I couldn't agree more.

Mardel said...

Good advice on the reviews, but then if I were to (by some miracle) actually produce a complete novel with dialog and everything else I would be very tempted to wonder what people though about it. And it would hard (of course) to hear criticism, especially the ones where the reviewer goes out of their way to be mean about it. Then again, sometimes good points are made...and yet then AGAIN sometimes I read a review where someone says somthing about not connecting with the characters. and I'm wondering why should you? you're not demon hunter/vampire/ vampire slayer, etc. How could you possibly connect with the character? And we're back to reviews being totally subjective and yeah - probably don't really matter in the long run to the author. Unless someone points out something very i'm circling again.

lol - so reviews are more for other readers who are looking for the type of books that they like and reading reviews of possibly people who like similar things.

It must feel very good though, to read a good review. :) validation and recognition of all the hard work an author puts forth to get a book finished (with dialogue and details, and all of that - it boggles my mind!) :)

Carolyn Crane said...

Brenda - so interesting about Tolkien! I didn't know that. Also, agreed, isn't that a great teen saying?

Jo: thanks!!

Mardel: Seriously, on my first book, I totally looked at reviews for a while until I worked this out. And, oh, yes, a good review or kind words, so meaningful! Also, best best best of luck with the book. You can do it!