Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The Subjectivity of Readers ... or ... Talk Me Down Off the Ledge

My first thought after reading MaryBeth Whalen's post on Monday was, "Sheesh, I wouldn't want to be in that book club." I can just imagine the conversation from her husband's perspective, hearing her defend her plot and her characters to a group of women who take their fiction far too seriously. Maybe not tomorrow, but I suspect MaryBeth will look back on the experience with the objectivity it deserves. And hopefully, laugh.
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I think most writers, at least in the early days of their careers, will have a "talk me down off the ledge"moment, when a review or an interview doesn't go as planned. For me, that moment came on a Saturday last summer at my local library. I was invited to participate in a Meet-the-Authors event with five other authors from my hometown, all but one of whom had published more books than I, and who were, by far, the more experienced public speakers.
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Yet I was the one who took the initiative to contact the other authors and invite them to meet for coffee a few weeks beforehand so we could become acquainted before the event. Turns out most of them already knew each other. But the children's author -- a gracious young woman -- joined me for coffee, and another author dropped in just before our time together ended. Then, a week or so later, the children's author invited me to have lunch with her, the drop-in, and another writer friend. It was nice, and helped me feel a little less of an outsider.
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I was honored to be a participant in the library event, and prepared my introductory spiel with care, as well as the material for my workshop. But the librarian in charge of the event was ... scattered, to say the least, and even arrived after the event was scheduled to begin. While the 60 or so who had gathered to hear us milled about, a couple of the other authors and I decided we'd go ahead and set up the room for the introductory session, because nothing was done. No tables, no chairs for our panel, no podium for our notes. No organization of any kind. Nothing. Nada. As a fan of structure, I was beginning to feel a little out of sorts.
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And it didn't help that I sat at the wrong end of the table. I realized the moment it was too late to do anything about it. Isn't that just how it goes? But I only had myself to blame. Left to right, Sharon. That's what I was thinking as I took that seat. Left. To. Right. That's how we do it in the US. And sure as the world, the fill-in librarian began with me. I stood, wishing I had a podium or even a music stand for my notes, and fumbled my way through the next five minutes. When we broke up for our workshops I had exactly three people in mine.
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True, most of the audience had come to hear the former local policewoman who now writes very successful detective novels, and we all knew it. She didn't disappoint. She was poised, polished, professional. Everything I wasn't. As expected, the bulk of the audience packed itself into her workshop.
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I took the long way home that day, feeling like an imposter.
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Considering that I once walked out of my high school sophomore history class and went home rather than give an oral report, I've come a long way. I've done TV and radio interviews and spoken to women's groups, where I was as poised, polished and professional as Police Woman. Just not that day. But for the most part, we writers want to write, not speak. Yet, maybe now more than ever, we have a huge responsibility in the promotion of our books. That means we'll be stretched, we'll have to step out of our comfort zones, and take chances that don't always have a happy ending, such as MaryBeth's book club interview.
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I've had some wonderful experiences interacting with book clubs. In fact, it's one of my favorite things to do in the promotion of my books. I know MaryBeth will have plenty of positive experiences in her future. But it's hard to let go of that one bad review, that one bad event. Because we're human. Another thing about being human is how very subjective we are. We're subjective as writers, penning stories that mean something to us. But we're also subjective as readers. Not everyone who picks up our books will be a fan. Hopefully the number will be small, and hopefully we'll learn something from the experience. Like how to laugh about it. In time.
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Maybe you've had an experience as a subjective reader where you didn't go along with the mainstream opinion, whether negative or positive. Or maybe you've had a talk-me-down-off-the-ledge moment, for whatever reason. We'd love to hear about it.

24 comments:

Charmaine Clancy said...

There's a lot of novels I don't love, but I'm happy if others do. As a teacher there are some certain vampire love novels that bore me, but I still think they are valid because they've got teen girls reading. I think most readers are open-minded enough not to be unfairly critical - getting a book written and out there is a lot to be proud of!

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Picked up your book last night, Sharon & I'm loving! it.

Would love to meet you in person someday.

I'm excited for the book club aspect of marketing.

I have a story. Something I'll never forget and I occationally think about before I have to get up in front of others. 7th grade. Spanish American war play. I had maybe four lines. Maybe. I stared at the audience of 7th graders. Swallowed rocks. And slowly, sloooowlllly I swiveled on my swivel chair so my back was to them. Said nothing. Forgot everything.

That was my proud moment! And also the reason why I'd never make a good actor.

~ Wendy

Latayne C Scott said...

Sharon, I think of what Jesus promised His disciples, that the Holy Spirit would give them words in difficult situations.

One thing that you said that resonated so strongly with me was that we are often out of our element because we are first writers and only rise to the occasion of speaking as an enhancement to our writing. For many of us, public exposure and extemporaneous responses range from the uncomfortable to the outright painful (as MaryBeth demonstrated.)

Yet God brings good through such things. i have a bit of suspicion of the speaker who is too polished, and feel more empathy for the one who writes well but with the less-slick presentation. If nothing else I am encouraged by someone who might share my own weaknesses and yet has achieved -- which you certainly have done with your fine novels, Sharon!

vonildawrites said...

I think I once gave an author (I can't remember the name) one of those ledge moments--only I truly didn't mean to! lol. We had a college course where our assignment was to present a biography of one of the writers of a selection of short stories (I can't remember the name, again). I picked an author who was modern and relatively unknown and tracked him down at home. He was so gracious, but I remember a long silence after I asked, "How did the victim survive riding in the trunk of the car across the Arizona desert?"

Sorry!

But, if you watch video of politicians (supposedly experienced), you will find errors galore--Dan Quayle misspelling potatoes, Al Gore not recognizing Thomas Jefferson AT Monticello, etc. Or even watch blooper reels of actors and actresses!

Easy to remember when it's someone else! Not so easy when you're the one in the hot seat! Or when we're having one of those bad days like Sharon described.

I agree with Latayne that God will use it all to his glory.

--Voni

Sharon K. Souza said...

Charmaine, I agree on both points of your "certain vampire love novels." Don't like them, but do like that it has teenagers reading. It's very nice to hear from you.

Wendy, thank you. I too would love to meet you. I have a feeling it'll happen one of these days. You described your "moment" beautifully. I was right there on that stage with you.

Latayne, you're always such an encourager. You are wise and wonderful!

Voni,I laughed at the question you posed to the author. That would be quite a trick.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I spelled occasionally wrong and it bothered me so much I had to come back to show you I can spell it right. :D
~ Wendy

Marybeth said...

Had to add Sharon that I can already laugh about it! I shared it last night (because it was on my mind b/c the post ran yesterday) with a book club I spoke to. That group was a delight! I have another book club I am speaking to on Friday. I love speaking to book clubs-- that one bad apple didn't spoil the whole bunch and I cling more now to how it all worked out with the letter that I got. God didn't let me dwell on the bad-- He let me refocus on the good. For that, I am grateful.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

I've had this plan in my head for a while. I'll write my story and then leave it for my grandchildren with a note: "This is your inheritance. Make of it what you will." They can handle the pain of exposure comfortably removed from the act of creation.

Sharon K. Souza said...

MaryBeth, I love happy endings. And love book clubs. Glad you had a really good experience. I know you'll have many more.

Henrietta, you have a wonderful plan. I wish I had something like that from my grandmother.

Jan Cline said...

Well, Im on the precipice at the moment. In a few short weeks I will have my first speaking engagement in a long time. I have no idea if I still have it in me to charm, encourage, entertain or inform. It's been several years and Im apprehensive - even though I love speaking. On top of that I have to sing right after I speak. Hmmmm. Practice, practice, practice.
Thanks for the timely post.

Megan Sayer said...

Sharon I LOVED your post! I so relate to it...I was the girl in uni who managed to avoid two years of class critiques (I studied fine arts, majoring in painting) because I couldn't talk about my work...too personal. I laugh about it these days. I don't have a problem with public speaking; I've led meetings in church, spoken on the radio, done media interviews with my old job.

The other day though I was chatting with an old school friend and it came up that I was writing a book. She was really excited. I froze. Then the inevitable came.
"So what's it about?"
Silence.
"Just...stuff."

GOD...I'm really passionate about my book. So passionate that it gets stuck in my belly and I can't speak of it lightly. Thankfully it's still a few years from true completion; by the time it's polished on paper I imagine I'll be more objective about it. Thankful too that pitches to agents are done in writing not over the phone!

Megan Sayer said...

And on the subject of reader subjectivity, I have a confession to make:

I am a Christian.
I am a woman.

...

...

(gulp)

I don't like Francine Rivers.

I'm sorry. I've tried. Every time conversation at church goes round to reading books there she is.

New person to me: "Oh you read? So do I!"
Me to New Person: "Great, what kind of things are you in to?"
New Person: "Oh I just LOVE Francine Rivers...have you read any?"
Me: "Yes." (end of story).

These conversations are getting predictable. Give me a good murder mystery any day.

The worst thing is I seem to be the only Christian fiction reader in Hobart (according to my local Christian bookshop's shelves) that DOESN'T enjoy "women's literature". To be fair to them, they do cater for people that don't like Francine...they also sell Janette Oke!

Oh well...back to the good old secular stores down the road...

Sharon K. Souza said...

Jan, You'll do wonderful. I can just tell by your photo. I'd love to be in the audience.

Megan, "Just stuff." Oh, I so relate, so agree with your comment. "Stuck in your belly ... can't speak of it lightly." You're at home here. And, gulp, I'm not a huge fan of Ms. Rivers either. I'll qualify that by saying The Last Sin Eater is one of my favorite books, but Redeeming Love ...? I wanted to throttle the protagonist! T-H-R-O-T-T-L-E. I only got through it because of my daughters, who do love Francine. Mysteries? Love them. Have you read the Bug Man books? The Steven James books: The Pawn, etc? And our very own incredibly great writers of mysteries, Latayne Scott? I highly recommend them all.

LeAnne Hardy said...

I'm with you, Megan. I'm a woman and a Christian, but I'm not a fan of women's fiction. The Last Sin-eater is brilliant, but some of her other stuff is...not.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Megan and LeAnne, as an author of Women's Fiction would either/both of you mind sharing what it is about WF that you're not crazy about? Can you be specific?

word verification: "exorc" ex or not, it still will never be welcome in the shire.

Megan Sayer said...

Sharon, first of all THANK YOU for your comments in your last-post-but-one. It was SO encouraging to hear I'm not alone, on both counts!

And to the question, why don't I like women's fiction?

My first response was that it doesn't relate to my world - but I haven't really found any dead bodies in the library recently either, so it's not that...

Speaking generally, I found the ones I read boring. The prose didn't inspire me (I like books where the language drips off the tongue like honey), I found them pedestrian (John Grisham doesn't need honeyed language because his plots are so gripping; even "non-legal" ones like "The Painted House" are rich with unspoken tension from the very beginning), and the characters weren't compelling. I didn't care about them or their problems, I figured they'd be all right in the end no matter what.

Having said that I also recognise that I'm not their target audience. Many of the Christian books I read were set in "Cultural Christianity" (which I translate - perhaps wrongly - as white, middle-class mid-west American where families have been going to church and praising Jesus since the pioneer times). Not that the writers of "Culturally Christian" books don't have a deep relationship with Jesus, I'm sure they do, it's just that I don't necessarily relate to their world view and corresponding set of expectations. My parents and grandparents didn't have that close walk with the Lord that you've all been speaking of in recent posts.

And then there's women protagonists. I don't like 'em. Especially the ones that fall apart and cry all the time. That's terribly personal though and has much more to do with my relationship with my mother than anything literary.

I LOVED "Bridget Jones' Diary" though. She's a protagonist with real integrity.

Plus, I HATED "The Kite Runner". The first third was so taught you could hear the author playing your emotions like a violin, but the rest of the book went flaccid and flabby and, I thought, needed a serious rewrite. Still, it sold millons and everyone else loved it. Which just goes to show I'M REALLY FUSSY.

So there you go. Hope I haven't offended the entire readership of Novel Matters...if I have, just remember: Francine Rivers sells! Just not to me. *grins*

Megan Sayer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bonnie Grove said...

Megan: You nailed it on The Kite Runner.

Megan Sayer said...

thanks Bonnie - really thought I was the only one!

Ellen Staley said...

Megan, have you tried Tosca Lee, Erin Healy or Ted Dekker? Dekker writes out of the box, Tosca Lee's Demon, A Memoir is excellent as is her Havah, the story of Eve. Havah has lyrical qualities in the rich prose. Healy's have a good twist. Dekker's are all (yes, I've read all his work) unique redemption stories, most memorable to me were the Blessed books, and the first three of The Circle Trilogy.

I did read Redeeming Love and was captured with Michael, frustrated with Angel.

Add to the above two of Anne Rice's newer Christian books and I have to admit I haven't read a lot of Christian fiction.

Bonnie, I just read your novel last weekend and enjoyed it.

Looks like I can add many new authors to my list! That is when I get a chance to read again.

Bonnie is keeping me busy and that's a good thing! :)

Sharon K. Souza said...

Megan, I really appreciate your honesty and insight. We're on the same page in many ways. But I do love women's fiction. I like several of Elizabeth Berg's books, What We Keep being my favorite. Some of the authors of Christian Women's Fiction that I really like (and who don't write the Cultural Christianity books you described - at least in my opinion) are Lisa Samson, Joy Jordan Lake (Blue Hole Back Home is over the top) Jamie Langston Turner (who uses a lot of narration, but I love it) Cynthia Ruchti (The Almost Always Come Home), and my co-writers of this blog. There's a lot of "out of the box" in all the authors I named. If you've read any of them, I'd love to hear what you did and didn't like. If you haven't, there are a few I could highly recommend. Thanks very much for a great discussion.

Bonnie Grove said...

Sharon: Jamie Langston Turner's Some Wildflower in my Heart (worst title EVER) - is formidable. I enjoyed it so much.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Bonnie, I so agree. Hated the title (though it is pertinent to the story), but loved the story.

Megan Sayer said...

Sharon and Ellen, thanks for the recommendations. No, I haven't read any of the authors or titles mentioned. I downloaded a copy of Tosca Lee's "Demon" the other day (after a recommendation from this blog) - looking forward to reading it.

I'm currently reading "Let the Great World Spin" after multiple recommendations from this blog (LOVING it...McCann's characterisation is sublime!), and have bought "Gilead" for afters. It's good to have my faith in positive literature restored!

Sharon I had a look at a lot of the titles you recommended online, and bought a copy of "What We Keep", which I'm really excited about, I'm dealing with similar-ish themes. Thanks for the tip!

I thought more about my "Cultural Christianity" comment too - I can now narrow it down further: great books present culture and place as character - I love Australian books that reflect for me my own culture or history, and I especially love books that can summon up the subtleties of other places, cultures and times. Books that presume we all "just get it" don't do much for me.

Gosh, I could talk forever about books. I'll stop now and get on with my weekend. It's been a great, thought-provoking discussion, thanks!