Why Do Readers Respond so Differently?

This is my first blog (an ugly word for sure!), so we’ll see how it goes.  I plan to talk more or less off the top of my head about writing/reading/books and I hope you’ll give me your own thoughts. I’ll only blog about once a week, if that, and only if I have something to say.

So I’ll start with this: I got a self-described rant about Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom this week.  The writer/reader friend (whom I respect and admire) had this to say about the book:

“Well, I just finished Freedom. It is a testament to JF’s breath-taking abilities as a writer that I did, because I couldn’t care less about any of his characters, with the possible exception of Richard Katz.  His flaws and his tiny bit of emotional growth I found believable.  The rest of them just bumbled along for way too long to earn my respect or my disdain, and were therefore uninteresting.”

She goes on to praise other things about the book, but she was obviously irked about the characters.  They had let her down by not engaging her emotionally and maybe morally.  They were “uninteresting”: kiss o’ death!

I  loved Freedom myself, finding it one of the most riveting books I’d read lately.  I couldn’t wait to return to it, and when it was over, I felt let down.  I was enlivened when I was reading it: the sheer energy, the great details, the satiric voice, the over the top, the blown-up situations, the originality of it.  The writing.

But my friend’s comments spurred me to ask: had I cared about the characters?

I’m not sure caring is the way I would describe my relationship to them. Mainly I was caught up in their lives and problems, the way love can go astray and awry, the painful, conflicted situations in which they found themselves.  I wanted to see what they would do, how they would manage or not, what would become of them.  A tragic death actually brought tears to my eyes, and the ending a lump to my throat.   The writing of the ending, that is, the actual sentence that read “And so he stopped looking at her eyes and started looking into them, returning their look before it was too late, before this connection between life and what came after life was lost…while the two of them were still in touch with the void in which the sum of everything they’d ever said or done, every pain they’d inflicted, every joy they’d shared, would weigh less than the smallest feather in the wind.”  Lump!  Maybe I did care.

Why do readers respond so differently to characters and novels?  It’s a mystery that anyone who has been in a book club has had to ponder.  Michael Cunningham, in “Found In Translation ( The New York Times, October 2, 2010), sheds light in this way:

“One of the more remarkable aspects of writing and publishing is that no two readers ever read the same book…Words on paper are abstractions, and everyone who reads words on paper brings to them a different set of associations and images…What the reader is doing, then, is translating the words on the pages into his or her own private, imaginary lexicon, according to his or her interests and needs and levels of comprehension.”

The reader and writer are in a collaboration and the text they create between them is alive, shifting, dynamic, personal, and highly individual.  The wildly varied reactions to Freedom in reviews and among readers testify to this phenomenon.

After I finished Freedom, I started reading Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shtyeyngart, which I had looked forward to based on an essay I had read by him in the NYTBR about cell phone use—and I loathed the novel almost immediately! It wasn’t just that I didn’t care about the characters. I was pissed off at the whole damn thing because it didn’t engage me in any way; therefore I refused to go beyond the first twenty pages.  Yet it has gotten great reviews.

One of the (many) difficulties with being writers is that we have to deal with readers.  We have to send our work out there into the big world–whether it be a writing group, a workshop, to agents, the public, reviewers–and hear what various readers have to say. And then we have to assess whether that reader knows what he or she is talking about.  Sometimes the problem…the fault…lies not in the writing but in the reader.  It can be hard to tell.  Reader reactions are particularly problematic when the work is unpublished. Once it’s published—well, at least you have that.

But of course it’s readers we need and want.  We hope for the “perfect reader,” the generous collaborator who sees even better than we what we hoped to achieve in the work.  We want readers who know of which they speak—especially if the thing is unpublished.

What to do about this conundrum, of how differently individual readers respond?

I have no easy answers.  Hey, I’m more comfortable with posing the questions.  What does it mean to care about a novel’s characters?  Does it matter if we like the characters or not? What makes one reader love a book that another hates?  How do we sort out contradictory reactions to our own work?

I do think it helps if one can move closer to being one’s own “perfect reader.” It’s impossible, of course, but one can get better at reading one’s own writing as an experienced, literate reader.  You have to do this, after all, you have to be able to “see” your work as a reader will see it.  Not every reader, but the reader you’re writing for, the reader out there in reader-land who wants to hear what you have to say, who will bring a similar heart, mind and sensibility to your writing.  You have to believe in that reader, become that reader, and write for him or her.  You have to be able to read your own work as that reader would.  Will.

Maybe you have some thoughts on these ponderables.

Let’s give Jeannette Winterson the final word for now.  In reviewing Michael Cunningham’s new novel, By Nightfall (yes, the Michael Cunningham mentioned above), she says “Good novels are novels that provoke us to argue with the writer, not just novels that make us feel magically, mysteriously at home.  A novel in which everything is perfect is a waxwork.  A novel that is alive is never perfect.”

For writers, there’s something heartening in that.

4 Replies to “Why Do Readers Respond so Differently?”

  1. Very interesting initial blog, Paulette! I wanted to add a brief thought about Jonathan Franzen's work. I haven't read Freedom but recently read The Corrections. I think Franzen is an amazing writer with a terrific feel for detail and observation and the fullest tool kit a writer could have. My reservations, lke your friend's, do lie in the area of characters, particularly in their interactions. Though Franzen is great at putting a family together there seems to be something poisonous at the core. I like to think of families, fictional and otherwise, as complicated and often dysfunctional but bound by something that is at least recognizable as love. With Franzen the bond feels more like hate. There is also a sort of sour arrogance that seems to infect the work, brilliant and praiseworthy as it is in so many ways.

  2. Great blog! Looking forward to more. I have only read The Corrections and didn't like it for the reasons Emily mentions above about his writing but with all the hullabaloo about Freedom I will have to read that one. Michael Cunningham, though, I love – especially that NYT review he wrote. The notion of writer as translator really resonated for me, especially as I am still trying to figure out how to do these conjugations.

  3. So pleased to be reading your amazing first blog entry, Paulette, and the very interesting comment string. I sat down to read FREEDOM with great excitement, particularly after the Franzen interview by Terry Gross on Fresh Air — hearing him describe how he looked for a way to write about stuff that's close to the bone–his own life and his family, in fictional terms, which is also my territory and yours, too, Paulette. But I found the reading experience punishing–like being run over by a truck, three Vespas and about a dozen bicycles. And as much as I believed in the character of Patty, my credulity waned. She seemed real enough, but untouched in the extreme by motherhood — the shattering aspects of it, how motherhood tends to flatten the ego. Her erotic egotism was distancing for me, though I'll be forever grateful to Franzen for giving Joey the thought that he was his mother's Designated Understander. I recognize the phenomenon, and hope that my boy will never think of himself that way with regard to me.

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