When is it okay to judge an author?Posted: March 18, 2013 | |
With social media connecting the world, we have plenty of opportunities to make judgements about people. This random stranger is following me on Twitter? Well, I’ll just check their feed and see what they— A Jersey Shore fan?! Unacceptable!
It’s easy to make judgements about books, too. Maybe you think that all vampire stories are innately stupid. Maybe you read one sample page of a book and find the prose style too clunky and childish, like you’re being talked down to. Maybe you reach the end of the book and find yourself annoyed at how you were beaten over the head with a moral message. It can be tempting to make judgements about the person who composed that piece. Because writing a book is an intentional act, isn’t it?
When an author writes a work of fiction, they might be drawing exclusively from their own opinions and experiences. Or they might not be. Writers sometimes create characters very different from themselves. They might explore a mindset they themselves don’t agree with. They might be trying for a particular emotional effect, or an evocation of some far-gone time period. Or maybe the writer is simply churning out some words to sell for money, so they can pay their real-life bills.
All of that is affected by the author’s skill level in writing, and their personal blind spots. A book can be an incredibly complex stew of human ideas, some entirely borrowed from other humans. So it’s not accurate to say that a book is a mirror image of the person who wrote it. Just ask any author who’s written about an abusive mother character, then had to deal with their actual mother taking offense.
I had an experience of being judged after I published Remedy. A reviewer said that she found the opening chapters confusing, therefore I’m “one of those” authors who is too good to explain my own world. Like I was too wrapped up in myself to consider how a reader will understand things. Which gobsmacked me, because here I was believing that readers are intelligent people who can draw conclusions for themselves. If I say the dragon is walking on two feet and folding his feathered wings, I trust that the reader can make a mental image of a bird-like, reptile-like being. And hopefully, they’ll get some minor satisfaction from figuring that out. I know I hate it when a book gives long, straightforward descriptions of every physical thing: I feel like I’m being spoonfed applesauce instead of being given a well-seasoned meal to chew. Maybe I’m conceited to think that other readers should be willing to make mental effort and interpret the word choices on the page? In which case, I’ll gladly admit that I’m the biggest “one of those” around, and folks can go ahead and judge me for that. (I did give more consideration to the opening of Ravel, though. And I’m still fiddling with the opening of Render, and gathering beta reader opinions.)
Judging the creator is yet another grey area in writing. It might not be possible to cleanly sort the author’s opinions and attitudes from the fictional story they wrote. A book’s messages can be understood in many different ways. But sometimes the writing actually does reflect the author’s prejudices, intentional or not. If a pattern appears in four or five books, well, yeah, maybe the writer really is expressing their views. Maybe there’s a reason all their male characters are abusive jerks, or all of their homosexual characters are deceitful. That’s deserving of criticism. The conscientious writer will notice those sorts of unintentional messages in their first book or two, and try to do better next time.
An author can admit to their mistakes, too. J.K. Rowling reportedly didn’t find out until partway through the Harry Potter series that snowy owls aren’t nocturnal and don’t hoot. So Harry’s owl Hedwig is portrayed inaccurately. Rowling invited fans to see this as either the author error it is, or as evidence that Hedwig is special and magical. If I had noticed that the fictional owl wasn’t accurate to real snowy owls, yeah, I’d probably think it was sloppiness on the author’s part, or just not caring because she’s writing for kids. But J.K.R. admitting that she made a human mistake while building a fantasy epic? I can respect that.
So basically, one book is circumstantial evidence. Maybe it shows the author’s true views, and maybe it doesn’t. It might just show momentary ideas, or lapses in concentration. If the author’s other books point to the same conclusion, it’s suspicious but still not iron-clad. Maybe the publisher demanded a certain slant. Maybe the writer just didn’t notice a distasteful message, and/or the editorial team didn’t point it out.
Personally, I try to avoid judgement until I see the author’s prose combined with their actual public statements. The things they say on their blog, or on Facebook, or in an interview. Some authors really do disrespect their fanbase, or have an overinflated ego, or insist that social groups X and Y are the scum of the earth. Some authors explode with rage if it’s suggested that their book isn’t perfect. If all signs point to a bad attitude, then yeah, we’re probably safe to judge.
Got thoughts? Share in the comments!
- Behind Every Great Writer is an Ideal Reader (wordservewatercooler.com)
- Aligare greetings (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)
- Aligare in the distant future (heidicvlach.wordpress.com)