Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Writers arguing with readers

There's been a lot of author-behaving-badly news recently - from Kathleen Hale's stalking a reviewer to Richard Brittain hitting a reviewer over the head with a bottle. Compared to that, the worst that's ever happened to me is an author calling me at home to ask me to take his name off my blog.

But there are more subtle ways a writer can antagonize readers, and arguing with them over something they didn't enjoy is one. This is how it happened to me.

I once saw a thread on a discussion board about tropes readers were tired of. That reminded me of a certain twist in a fantasy I’d just finished. Unfortunately it wasn’t much of a twist—more like a feeble wriggle—so I posted on that thread.

I didn’t mention the book or the author, only the particular twist, something like, “I’m tired of the Big Reveal where the villain is the hero’s father. This isn’t original and when I read it in a recent fantasy novel, it just came off as a dull cliché for me.”

The author of that book saw what I’d posted. I hadn’t said anything identifying the book, but the fact that I’d complained about a twist she’d used seemed to upset her. She sent me a private message asking how this was a cliché. When I named other novels which had driven that cliché into the ground, she posted in the thread to defend her use of it.

She said she hadn't read the novels I’d referenced, and her editor hadn't said anything about her twist either. "So how does that make it a cliche?" she asked. "I can't read everything. If you're wondering why a writer would use such a trope, they, and their editor, have not read the books you have." (Italics hers)

I ended up apologizing in an "I'm sorry if I said something offensive" way, just to calm her down. But I also decided I would never again read anything she had published. The twist alone wouldn’t have put me off, because I’d enjoyed other aspects of her book, but her defensive attitude is something I can't forget.

So writers haven’t read the books I have? That’s fine. But I have read the books I have, so if for the nth time I read a certain plot twist, maybe it does look like a cliche to me. What am I supposed to do under those circumstances—tell myself, “Well, to the author of the book, this must be really fascinating, therefore I shouldn’t say anything”?

Plus, the thread was about cliches, so people were posting on it about cliches. Lots of them. This particular plot twist was just one in the crowd, so it wasn’t like I had specifically started a thread to criticize this author’s book. God alone knows what might have happened in that case.

Complaining about a plot twist =/= singling out a book, even if a book uses that twist.

It also doesn’t mean that the reader hates your book in general. Not at all. I don’t like the rape scene in The Fountainhead. That’s still my second favorite book. I can’t stand the protagonist of Confessions of a Shopaholic—but the book still ended up being a keeper, because there are other things I enjoyed about it.

A reader complaining about a plot twist might still try another of your books.

A reader whom you have argued with to defend your work? That’s a different matter. Even if you’ve won the argument—and the author I mentioned might well believe she’d won, since she got an apology of sorts—in the end, you haven’t gained a fan. You’re more likely to have made someone avoid your books on principle.

Even if someone said they hated fantasies set on ships, and that Robin Hobb’s Liveships novels had the last word in this and that he/she would never read such a book again, that's not a personal commentary on my work. I'd stand to lose more by getting defensive about this than I would from letting it go and allowing that person their opinion, rather than trying to argue them out of it.


Maria Zannini said...

That's just bizarre that she was so offended that she felt she had to make a case for it. You must've struck a nerve.

The thing authors don't understand that anyone else who reads that thread might come away feeling the same way as you. Anyone who goes to this much trouble to defend 'her baby' comes off as petty. I probably wouldn't read her work either after this.

It's a slippery slope to argue a topic when it's already personal to you.

Unknown said...

I'm one who believes that there's no point in arguing an opinion since everyone has one and not all agree. The author sounds like a pretty needy person, someone who requires validation and is not getting it for whatever reason.

Marian Perera said...

Maria - "It's a slippery slope to argue a topic when it's already personal to you".

That's it, exactly. The conversation quickly stopped being a discussion about the cliche, and got into why this author felt justified in using it/taken aback that it was being criticized.

Diane - And in a thread that's clearly labelled "What cliches are you tired of?"... people are going to vent.

What surprised me was that the author's books were released by a major publisher and got plenty of accolades. Compared to the people who enjoyed her books, I'm no one. So I didn't get why she seemed so upset by my disliking that one thing about her book.

DRC said...

As soon as you put your work out there for the world you have to expect that not everyone is going to like it. Some will love it, some will hate it - and some, like yourself, will dislike certain parts like cliches. There's no point arguing and trying to tell someone their preferences are wrong. It's like my book. Some people hate the ending but some people love it. I'm not prepared to argue why I wrote the book that way. It's the way it showed itself to me. If they don't like the way it ended then that's perfectly fine. Everyone sees things differently.

Marian Perera said...

DRC - exactly. Sometimes I think, "PW and Kirkus and the NYT loved your book, so why does a blogger with a different opinion bother you?" But it's probably because the major sites all loved it that the author gets frustrated or angry when one small, anonymous stranger dares to go against (what seems like) public opinion.