Since last October, I've been doing quite a bit of two things. Besides needless, anxious worrying. I do that all the time. I've been doing a lot of novel reading and a lot of review reading.
Yes, I read reviews for my own works. I've heard the wise heads that say you shouldn't do this, that it stunts your growth as a writer, dashes your confidence on the shoals of grief and all that. *shrugs* Perhaps for some. For me, it can upset me in the short term, but I find I learn things as well. The one thing I've learned beyond all other things is that writing to a word count is often detrimental to the story. A story should be as long as a story needs to be. Forcing it into a pre-set number of words - well, the audience knows it. But I digress...
I also read reviews for other works. Some for works I've read. Some simply because the review itself sounded interesting. For the ones where I and the reviewer have (presumably) both read the work, I've often caught myself wondering "did they really read what I read?"
This brings me to my point - the Autonomy of the Reader.
Readers can be coaxed in a certain direction. They can be nudged, influenced, and tempted. But they cannot be led. The intent of the author is not necessarily what the reader will experience. The intent of the author, in many ways, becomes a moot point once the book is in the reader's hands. It is no longer the author's domain, to mold and carve as he or she pleases. The kingdom has suffered a palace coup and the reader is now in charge. Oh, yes. They'll read the words you wrote, in the order you wrote them, more than likely. But what they meant to you and what they mean to the reader? Don't count on them lining up in nice, regimented rows.
I've had readers say of the same character that he was brave and never surrendered his man card one day and that he was too girlie the next. I've had stories where there was not enough explanation and too much. That it was brilliant and ridiculous. That the sex scenes were wonderful and tepid. (Not from the same reader, mind you. I've never had anyone call a sex scene wonderfully tepid.) A story I meant to be amusing has been called scary and edge of your seat. A story I meant as study of the rebirth of hope has at times been called too dark.
But this is not a failure in communication. This is not a failure on the reader's part to understand my intent. This is simply the reader's reaction to the random words I strung together in some semblance of order. The reader's reaction is a complex equation that includes components of experience and influence. The influence portion is the reason I try not to read reviews of books I haven't yet read and would like to read.
It detracts from the autonomous experience.
I'm going to borrow an example I recall from college. Think of it this way: When you go to the Grand Canyon, it's beautiful. But you see it from predetermined angles, on paths other people have chosen, from an approach someone has carefully laid out for you. It's amazing - but there's a sense of having lost some of the wonder. Now imagine instead of the National Parks experience, that you're hiking up an incline, not certain of what's up ahead, and suddenly you reach the crest and find this amazing geological wonder stretched out below you. It's spectacular. It takes your breath away. It sears itself into your memory because you have not been led to this place. It was unexpected, a journey of discovery and no one told you how you were supposed to react to it.
Autonomy of experience.
As readers and writers, I think, this is how we should approach books as well. The writer creates, hoping for that bond, that connection with the reader. But we cannot dictate the reader's reaction, nor should we expect to. If the work has any depth at all, it should reach people in different ways and speak to them in different voices. Different parts should evoke emotional responses, not always where the writer expected, because of the reader's own collection of experiences and gut reactions.
I just read a novel by a writer I always enjoy and one who often pulls very deep emotional responses from me. I've cried while reading this writer's work before and I cried this time, too. But I'm not sure it was at the place where the writer would have expected. Or maybe it was. There is a spot where the hero sees his beloved in a hospital bed connected to all sorts of monitors and unspecified tubes and he silently compares it to the first time a parent sees their newborn in the neonatal ICU, behind the glass of an isolette. The image evoked a memory cascade for me - a series of flashes so sharp and painful... I recalled when my son, my only child, was born too early. I was allowed to hold him for maybe a minute before he was snatched from my arms and rushed to NICU. I hadn't even had a chance to give him a name. I was alone that first time I was finally able to see him, standing there in the muted light in front of his isolette, seeing his tiny body struggle to breathe, unable to touch him or help him in any way.
The memory hit so hard at those few words this author wrote, I cried as I did then.
(For those of you concerned, my child lived and eventually thrived. He's now 6'2" and 22 years old.)
But another reader might not have had the same sharp, memory-knife reaction to that paragraph. It may well be another sentence, word, image that makes them fly apart or laugh or shriek or wish to throw the book across the room (not recommended when reading on iPad.)
Approach books as you would something new and wondrous. Don't let anyone tell you what to think of them or how to process them. Discuss, compare, engage with others after the fact. But preserve that journey of discovery for yourself. Read in glorious isolation and let the words crash against you as a whole being, your experiences, your memories, your visceral, necessary reactions.
Angel writes (mostly) Science Fiction and Fantasy centered around queer heroes. Currently living part time in the hectic sprawl of northern Delaware and full time inside her head, she has one husband, one son, two cats, a love of all things beautiful and a terrible addiction to the consumption of both knowledge and chocolate.