I’ve often said on this blog and in interviews that the story belongs to the reader. This is part of why I’m so sanguine about bad reviews.
What I mean by this is that no matter what my intentions for a work of fiction, no matter what I thought I did in that work, the experience the reader has is genuinely theirs. Even if their reaction is opposite to the one I intended. I don’t come with the book or magazine or Web page, hanging about to explain what I meant. The words can, and do, and must speak for themselves.
This rubric of mine got foregrounded pretty hard when a reader sent me an email about their reaction to Mainspring [ Powell’s | Barnes & Noble | Borders | Audible ]. We corresponded a bit, and with their kind permission, I am reproducing the original note.
i just read your novel Mainspring. I have read sci-fi all my life and I greatly enjoy the genre. I was attracted to your novel because your name was new to me and I am always searching for fresh new talent in this field. The cover art on the hardcover edition was great, too. That always helps.
In general I prefer novels that feature fascinating characters and a great adventure. Your novel hooked me on the adventure component quickly, and that is likely why I finished reading it. The character of Hethor, however, went from okay to boring. In addition, all the religious symbolism and biblical references and god this and god that got old quickly. I felt like I was reading an L. Ron Hubbard novel. If I had known you were going to spend a majority of the novel on some quasi-religious quest, I would have passed on it.
As such, I was considering getting the novel Escapement, but I’ll pass. They are mis-shelving your work at the book store under Sci-Fi whereas it belongs under Religion.
My first, immediate reaction to this correspondence was to wince. My second reaction was to be delighted that this reader cared enough, especially in the negative, to send me a thoughtful message about their reaction. My third reaction was regret that they had not read the book the way I intended it to be read.
In part, my response to them ran:
Another small irony is that I have seen MAINSPRING reviewed both as Christian apologia (more or less how you read it, I believe) and as anti-Christian screed. I have a low enough sense of humor to find this dichotomy amusing.
The story this reader experienced wasn’t quite the story I meant to tell. It wasn’t quite the story I thought I was telling, for reasons I can elaborate on at another time if anyone cares to hear them. (Those details are not germane to my point today.) But it was the story they read.
(Note that I do distinguish between gross reading errors and variations of interpretations. Occasionally a review or other reader reaction will be misplaced on the face of the story, ie, a misreading. Those tend to annoy me somewhat, simply because in my experience [a] they’re usually negative; and [b] my work is being judged on the basis of something I didn’t say. Thankfully this is a fairly rare circumstance.)
Now extrapolate this interaction between me and my kind correspondent to other forms of reader reaction. A critique, for example, is a reader reaction from peers or mentors who presumably have some expertise in the field, and possibly some prior knowledge of that writer’s work, speaking to the writer and also often to other peers gathered together. A review is a reader reaction within a relatively formalized setting, speaking not to the writer but to other potential readers. Editorial response — whether acceptance, rewrite request, hold, rejection or something else — is a reader reaction within a very narrow, formalized setting speaking solely to the writer.
But they are all reader reactions. And in every case, it is not your intention for the story but their reaction to it that counts, that drives the reaction.
Given how much angst can be expended over critiques, reviews, and editorial responses, I have to say that my rubric of the story belonging to the reader is a mighty helpful way to keep the fires of my own writerly angst banked down. It’s better for my mental health and well-being, it keeps me from being knocked off center more often than happens anyway, and it allows me to embrace all those forms of response with (usually) little more than a twinge.
Yes, sometimes I get this wrong, too. But for the most part, the rubric serves me very well indeed. And I thank my reader and correspondent for reminding me so forcefully of this core principle of my auctorial identity.