Further reasons why authors + reviews don’t mix.

Facepalm

It happened again: an author butted into a discussion of his work on the Book Smugglers blog, resulting in the reviewers getting called “bullies” for daring to tell him their own interpretations were valid.

There are -illions of reasons why an author should never intrude into critical discussions of their work, and all the obvious ones—breaching social boundaries, chilling effect on discussion, abuse of power, etc.—have been covered ad nauseam elsewhere. But here’s one that often gets overlooked:

When an author imposes their intentions on readers, it strangles the work.

See, the storyteller’s maxim “show, don’t tell” doesn’t just apply to written text. It applies to the author’s conduct in real life, too. The book does the showing. Any defense, refutation, explanation, or other interference from the author is telling. The book, if it is a good book, will do the showing all on its own. A good book doesn’t need its author to tell the reader how to interpret the story. A very good book is open to multiple interpretations. The author has their own personal interpretation, which may be of interest to certain readers, but that viewpoint should never be imposed on any public critical discussion where the author has not been expressly invited to do so.

Why? Because an interpretation from the author has the ring of the Word of God, and it can easily shut down a lively discussion full of opposing viewpoints. When the author removes the mystery of their intentions, readers tend to stop devising their own interpretations of events, instead accepting whatever the author says because, well, they’re the author. What was once a living text that was debated and attacked and defended then becomes fossilized. Sure, some intrepid readers may refute the author’s explanations and hatch their own, but typically an author’s intrusion into a critical discussion has a deadening effect.

Plus, it just kinda makes the author look like an insecure douchebag.

This is the exact same mechanism that is at play when fledgling writers are told, “Show, don’t tell.” If you tell the reader exactly how to feel or think about something, you’re destroying the magic of reading: the exercise of imagination. If you tell readers how to interpret what they’ve read, you’re destroying the magic of social reading: comparing and contrasting one’s thoughts with others.

RAGE

Many writers have a knee-jerk reflex to “correct” readings of their work that don’t align precisely with their intentions. Maybe it’s the rabid control freak lurking in our dark little hearts. I’m not above it. I feel a private twinge of dismay when I read an interpretation of my work that conflicts with my intentions (unless it’s favorable, obviously; writers will take any credit for unintended genius). But most of the time the unexpected interpretations amaze and delight me.

When readers have wildly diverse reactions to a character or event or theme in my writing, I know I’m doing something right: I’m not telling them how to think or feel about that thing. Secretly, they’re doing the work for me. They’re using their imaginations and personal experiences to supply their own meaning to those story elements. They’re enriching my work with their own reactions.

That’s alchemy, people. Book (lead) + reader (solvent) = gold.

So, when authors who should know better barge into critical discussions of their work and let their fussy little fingers fly in an ill-advised exegesis about their True Meaning etc. etc., they are not, in fact, enriching the social reading experience. They’re scorching earth. They’re killing a living discussion. They’re reducing the potential artistic richness and aliveness of their novel.

That, personally, is my greatest fear as a creative person. Not harsh critiques—they’re inevitable—but my work dying, whether from neglect or, as above, from too much handsiness and the inability to let go, to let it become its own living entity, forever beyond my control.

I propose that we call such behavior helicopter noveling.

7 Responses to Further reasons why authors + reviews don’t mix.

  1. Beautifully stated, and one that I find myself repeatedly struggling with the more I see authors vocalizing their objections to specific reviews. In any writer’s workshop worth its salt, the number one edict is always that the author must remain silent during the discussion. Allow the discussion to flow. Oftentimes, I’ve learned the most imperative things about my stories from that discussion, and as painful as criticism is, I’m eternally grateful for it.

    If I may (and let me reiterate that this is my own personal opinion), I also find myself frustrated with the latest trend that has authors posting their “ideal image” of characters. This even gets exaggerated to actual living, breathing humans that come along to signings while pretending to be beloved fictional characters.

    I absolutely understand the draw, but as a reader, I love nothing more than using my imagination to create that character. I in many ways crave the days of radio shows, where there wasn’t an onslaught of ever-ready visuals that, consciously or subconsciously, molds my image of a character. A great story provides me with all the visuals I need.

    • Totally agree about the character casting thing. I’m fine with readers doing it (and I love to see their picks), but I seriously considered not answering when people asked me to do my own casting, because I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s mental image of the characters.

      It’s like seeing a movie of a book you read and loved as a child: you can’t help but be let down in some way, even if it’s just because it’s not yours anymore. It’s not that private dream-like image you had in your head. Maybe the movie or photo version is beautiful, but it didn’t come from you, and something will always be missing because it’s not that world in your head that you were completely immersed in.

  2. I wanted to “like” this post, but since it’s not an option I’m just gonna leave a comment here. I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said.

    I just finished writing a review about a book where one of my biggest complaints was that the author stated the obvious and didn’t show us anything and instead TOLD us how to feel or how to interpret events. Even most conversations weren’t written in dialogue form and instead were told. It’s the worst thing you can do as an author.

    And I get that when readers don’t understand your story or misinterpret your meaning, it hurts. And you want to correct them. Some readers just won’t get it unless it’s spelled out for them. Even I, as a reader, feel overly protective over my favorite books and wanna make sure readers don’t ruin it by misinterpreting. But even that is preferable over the author chewing it out.

    One last thing. I’m like 15% into Unteachable and I just wanna say I’m already in love with it. A story stands or falls depending on the writing and the writing in your book is perfect.

    • Thanks, Marta. Telling is one of my biggest peeves as a reader, and it’s especially common in self-published fiction, probably due to lack of proper critique before publishing.

      Glad you’re enjoying my book so far. Hope the rest doesn’t disappoint!

      • One self-published author personally gave me an ARC before publishing and asked for feedback. I told her very honestly that there was a lot of room for improvement in the writing department and that she should show more instead of tell us everything. She didn’t listen to me, but when there are 9 people telling you your work is amazing and there’s only me saying there’s room for improvement, the critique she so desperately needs is not gonna do its job. Most readers seem to be a-okay with the telling. The book I left the review for is one of the most popular at the moment.

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