Readers’ Incompatibility of Beliefs (and Sensibilities)

Thanks to those of you who commented on my first blog!  I’m interested in everything you have to say, and re: The Corrections, I’ll also weigh in.  When I read it about nine years ago, I thought it was The Great American Novel, why I no longer know.  About the only thing I could remember from it now was a great scene where Chip is shoplifting a…well, I had remembered it as a steak, but when I looked at the book to check, it was a filet of wild Norwegian Salmon, line caught — much better choice.  It costs $78.40, which is why he stuffs it down his pants.  I relished these lines all over again: “Chip put his hand to his crotch.  The dangling filet felt like a cool, loaded diaper.”  Puts you right there, doesn’t it.

A friend wrote to say I should give Super Sad True Love Story another go, that once he (and his partner) got past the first 50 pages, it took off and they really, really enjoyed it. So I’m trying again (I bought it in hardback, after all). And I continue to ponder my initial query re: why readers respond so differently to books as I wade into Super Sad again, trying to be a little more tolerant this time.

I came upon an idea that shed some light for me on the matter of reader reactions in The Rhetoric of Fiction, by Wayne Booth, in which Booth refers to an essay by Walker Gibson called “Authors, Speakers, Readers, and Mock Readers.”  Gibson says “the book we reject as bad is often simply a book in whose mock reader we discover a person we refuse to become, a mask we refuse to put on, a role we will not play.”  I haven’t read Gibson’s essay but reading a little farther (thanks, Google), I believe what Gibson is saying is that all texts ask readers to take on a certain set of attitudes and preconceptions, and this so called resulting mock reader may or may not choose to accept the role of a willing reader.

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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.

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