Monday, July 11, 2011

When Critics Disagree

At the retreat this past weekend, one of the questions that came up in our class was a terrific one: What is an author supposed to do when several readers of her manuscript disagree in their reactions to it?

A first answer, of course, is that she should do whatever SHE wants to do. It is, after all, HER book; it needs to express her voice and her vision.

And yet, it is also true that in some sense every reader's judgment of a book is irrefutable. If a reader doesn't think my chapter is funny, there is no point in my trying to insist to him, "Yes, it is!" If he thinks it's confusing, there is no point in my insisting on its clarity. And isn't connecting with readers the POINT of what we're trying to do? And now my readers are disagreeing with each other: one hates the other's favorite scene; one dislikes the other's favorite character; one doesn't "get" the other's favorite funny bit. What to do?

Now, every author has to accept that we cannot please every single reader. Even War and Peace has its detractors. Whenever I check reader reviews of a book I've just read on, I'm bound to see five-star reviews offset by one-star reviews. So it may simply be impossible to please all readers, especially if some readers have a standing aversion to a certain genre, or type of story line, or kind of humor. Oh, well.

That said, I do think that an author can often do something to correct what reader B hated in a chapter even while keeping what reader A loved about it. When I was writing the first chapter of my forthcoming book about an honor student who is facing expulsion for mistakenly taking her mother's lunchbox instead of her own, a lunchbox that happened to contain a small knife for cutting her mother's apple, I wanted to establish Sierra as a girl who is somewhat smug and self-righteous, secure in her role as top scholar and student leader. Then in the course of the story, she is going to have to reexamine her self-image and the various assumptions that undergird it.

When my writing group read the first draft of the chapter, some of them said that they simply didn't like Sierra, as she had been presented, and weren't going to be able to root for her as the heroine of the story. But others said that my portrayal of her somewhat problematic character was the most brilliant part of the book. What to do?

Well, what I did was to keep Sierra pretty much as she was, but simply tone it down a bit. I took out two or three thoughts that she had that most set up some readers to dislike her, thoughts that were just a tad over-the-top. And that was enough. On a second reading, everyone liked her, even as they recognized her flaws.

So maybe we can at least try to please everybody. At least some of the time.

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