“I Don’t Think it Means What You Think it Means”

Final-CoverThe pre-publication prep on Yamada Monogatari: Demon Hunter is drawing to a close. So far the manuscript has been proofread by two people other than myself, and if any typos remain it wasn’t for lack of effort in hunting them down. It’s always best to have a pair of eyes other than your own when cleaning up a book—it’s far too easy to read what you expect to be there and what should be there rather than what actually is there. And no matter how long a manuscript sits, you’re never going to be able to review it with the objectivity that someone from the outside brings. That’s just the way it is.

Speaking of the way things are, the book already has its first review. From a reviewer who couldn’t finish it. You see, all the chapters “read like short stories.”

I know I heard a few of you snorting your coffee, or whatever beverage of choice, just now. “There’s a reason for that,” you might say, as did I when I first read the review. And it would be easy enough to slag on a reviewer who massively missed the point, but that itself would be missing the point. See, this is the exact opposite of the problem above. The book/story whatever it is, it’s your baby. You know it better than anyone. So well, so involved that you can never be completely objective about it. That’s when you’re trying to make it presentable to show the world, but then comes the next step—you show the world. And not anyone out there is going to know, to the core of their beings, as you do—just what is in front of them. Sure, it’ll look like a book, and have pages and words and things like, you know, a book. After that you’re into the realm of interpretation. Inevitable, completely out of your control, interpretation. Your book has left your world, where it was cherished and understood, and gone out into a world that, frankly, isn’t inclined to cut it any slack at all. They might read the cover copy about what your or another reader might have believed the book was about, but everyone knows that this much of it is hype and pitch. They will make up their own minds, thank you very much.

Here’s the thing—whatever your intention in creating it, you don’t get to decide what the book is. People who are not you are going to read the book (or attempt to). More to the point, they’ll compare it to their inner framework that tells them what a book is. Maybe that inner framework can’t take into account the fact that the book is a collection of short stories. Maybe they never read short stories. Maybe they don’t even know magazines and short stories exist. Don’t laugh, I’ve come across a few readers like that. Or they know about them but never read them. A book of fiction is a novel, and that’s how they’ll read your work, and find it lacking because it’s not a very good novel. Saying “It’s not a novel!” won’t melt any ice, because what you say the book is has no framework in their world, and you’re not going to be there to explain it anyway and it wouldn’t matter if you were.

I learned a long time ago that what I wrote wasn’t always what people read. Listening to reader interpretations of a story or book of mine over the years has been–and I hope continues to be–fascinating. If you’re a writer, you’ll probably see the same thing. There’s no point griping about it because, even though people will always read the book they think they’re reading and seldom the one you wrote, they’re not wrong. They decide what your work is for them: joyous or depressing, deep or ordinary. That’s their right.

What matters is that, now and then, you connect with a reader or two who is ready to read the book or story you actually wrote. They’re the ones you’re really writing for, and all you can hope for is that you find them.

Getting It — And no, Not That “It”

I got a good review not too long ago that made me very happy. Those who recall any previous rants on this subject may be right to wonder why I’m in such a good mood after a thing so inconsequential in the Great Scheme of Things as a favorable review. “We don’t need no steenkin’ validation” and like that, and aren’t I being just a tad hypocritical?

First, my answer is the same as Emerson’s, namely: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” so get over it. Second, I’m not actually talking validation here, or at least not of the stroke kind. Human nature naturally prefers praise but whether the review was a praise or a pan really is beside the point. The reason I’m feeling all chuffed and preening is that the reviewer understood what I was doing.

That is a lot rarer than it should be. Fess up time: haven’t you ever finished a review, good or bad, and wondered just what bloody story they were reading, cause it sure as hell wasn’t the one you wrote? Happens to me all the time. Of the current crop of reviewers, Rich Horton and Lois Tilton are seldom guilty of this, but they’re the exceptions, not the rule.

I’m not going to repeat the “rose petals into the Grand Canyon” analogy. Too tired and obvious. Still, you other writers out there know it’s true. Few things will grind your soul more than realizing that the people who, at least in theory, are your intended readership simply cannot parse your work. “Moon Viewing at Shijo Bridge” is, in my not so humble opinion, one of the best stories I’ve ever done, and yet the early reader reaction wasn’t much better than a sort of vague puzzlement, and a great deal of: “but I figured out the ending!” Which I never did figure out the polite response to, though the appropriate response was “Then you were paying attention and have decent reading comprehension skills. Congrats.”

Yeah, yeah. He got a good review and he’s a happy guy. So what and why should we care? Why? Because reader reaction — and a reviewer is above all a reader — is one more bit of information that helps us judge whether we accomplished what we set out to do in any given story. While praise is always nice enough, if a reviewer pans OR praises a story of yours in terms that prove he or she didn’t have the vaguest clue what it was about, exactly how inclined are you to pay attention? You may allow yourself a few minutes of annoyed or bemused bafflement at why they could not see what was plainly there, but probably not much more than that. Now, what about a review that is clearly a pan but nevertheless explains the story’s shortcomings in terms that make sense to you? Was your narrative a little unfocused? Did you really indulge in a fun little digression that undercut your theme? Are they right? You can say they’re being too picky if you want, but deep down you know that, in fact, they are right. Chances are you knew the flaws were there and just didn’t want to see them, or knew something wasn’t quite right but couldn’t quite pin it down. When those flaws are exposed to you by someone who understands what the story is about, by someone who reads carefully, knows what the story was attempting and points out where it fails, the chances are much greater that you’re going to learn something you need to know. Such pans are worth reading and such praise is worth enjoying.

The rest is just so much noise.

Review: Beaker’s Dozen by Nancy Kress

BEAKER’S DOZEN by Nancy Kress, Tor Books, August 1998, Hc, 352 pp., ISBN: 0-312-86537-6

Nancy Kress is known as an Idea writer (Capital I with fanfare and flourishes) with a tendency toward polemic. I don’t think the reader can find better examples of both traditions often in the same story as are found in BEAKERS DOZEN. I also don’t think there’s a better capsule summary of both the potential rewards and pitfalls of either approach.

Kress starts the collection with her Hugo Award winning “Beggars in Spain.” This is arguably Kress’s most well known story, and it’s also a good introduction to her fascination with biotech. As the story opens, Roger and Elizabeth Camden are meeting with a geneticist to order the enhancements they wish for their planned child, rather like a young couple of an earlier time might meet the architect of the house they wished to build. The enhancement that Roger–but not Elizabeth—wants most is sleeplessness. He gets his way, with one glitch: instead of a single daughter, two are conceived. One with the enhancement, Leisha, and one, Alice, without. Continue reading

The Innkeeper’s Song

 The Innkeeper’s Song by Peter S. Beagle, Roc, 1994

A plot summary of this book might go something like this: A wizard and his former students fight against another former student who has traded his life to the darkness for power. It would be accurate, but totally misleading. So what was the book really about? Stories. Singing. Love. Hate. Obligations. Responsibilities. Death. Rebirth. Redemption….

If I had to describe The Innkeeper’s Song in a word, it would be this–chewy. Some books are like milkshakes. You just drink them down easily and go on to the next one. Others, like this one, you read slowly. If you don’t, you miss half of it. Beagle has packed in enough story in this novel for a book three times its size. Another author would have have turned it into a 1000 page doorstop and it would have taken no more time to read than it does at its proper length. This is one I’ll probably have to read again, since I’m sure I could come back to it in six months or so and be thinking “I totally missed that!” in every other chapter. There’s a lot here. Take your time.