Getting Undressed in Public
Writing is a solitary business. I know there are pairs and groups of writers who have been and are very successful, but mostly it’s something that people do on their own. And in the early stages it’s very private. In my own case I become so absorbed in the world I’m creating that it can take precedence over the real one; as I work on my story and characters I miss things that are going on around me, fail to hear what’s said to me, forget things.
Writing can also be self-indulgent. When I began to seriously write fiction I didn’t consider whether anyone would read it. I didn’t have a reader in mind, neither did I have a genre. I wrote what I wanted to write because I wanted to write it. So when people asked me who would read my book and what the genre was, I was at a loss. However, once I’d finished my first novel I wanted to show it to others. To be honest, what I really wanted was for them to tell me it was brilliant and just what the literary world had been waiting for. I gave it to family and close friends, and – bless them – that’s more or less what they did say. But they would, wouldn’t they? I mean, when you show your baby to someone you’re close to they’re going coo and tell you how lovely it is, even if it looks like a goblin!
So you have to go further. You get published, and you brace yourself to see how people who don’t know you will respond to your baby. This is the bit that somebody (it might have been Mark Twain) likened to taking your clothes off in public. You stand naked on the platform and wait for people to say which parts of your anatomy they admire (if any!) and which they deplore. The most you can hope for is that their assessments will be honest, and for the most part I think they are.
I waited in an agony of anticipation for the first reviews of Paradise Girl, and I was delighted when they came in at four or five stars. However, one of them didn’t (more than one, of course, but one I want to talk about). This reviewer disliked my book because she ‘didn’t get on with’ (her phrase) my heroine, Kerryl. The problem for her was that Kerryl develops a warped image of her own body which triggers anorexia. Now this choice wasn’t just a gimmick on my part. Here’s a young woman who sees her family and friends die and is left completely alone. How would she respond to the intolerable psychological impact of that? My view of her is that it might emerge in some sort of self-destructive behaviour. Anorexia fitted my view of Kerryl because she has a history of eating disorder and it seemed a more likely outcome than other sorts of self-harm. I intended that it should kindle compassion for Kerryl, but in this case it didn’t, it provoked irritation and exasperation.
I wanted to explain this to my reviewer and get her comments on how else I might have handled it. Could I have made Kerryl say or do things which would have evoked a more sympathetic response? So I messaged her through Goodreads to explain why I’d created Kerryl in that particular way. Big mistake! My reviewer complained that responding in this way made her feel uncomfortable. And another Goodreads user took exception to my action, saying that in contacting a reviewer I had ‘broken the contract between writer and reader’. She said that she had not read Paradise Girl, and because of what I had done never would!
I’m a big fan of BBC Radio 4’s The Book Programme. I love the interactions between James Naughty and authors, the questions that come from the audiences and and the discussions that arise out of them. I thought the same thing might happen on Goodreads. I wasn’t trying to say or imply that my reviewer was ‘wrong’. I was brought up in the FR Leavis school of literary criticism, where intelligent reading is regarded as a creative activity in its own right and there is no such thing as a ‘wrong’ interpretation. Maybe I expressed myself clumsily in what I wrote to this reviewer – well obviously I did because it didn’t lead to the outcome I wanted – but it did make me think about Goodreads groups, and to realise that many of their members don’t want to communicate with writers; they want to communicate with each other.
Like almost every writer, I am sincerely and immensely grateful to anyone gives up their time to read my work. I am even more grateful if they take the trouble to say what they think of it. However, it’s a shame if it stops at that. There are exceptions, but for the most part reviews on Goodreads or anywhere else don’t lead to a discussion of the work. I know there’s the opportunity to ask an author a question, but comparatively few readers do, and to be honest the questions are usually fairly banal (‘When’s your next book due out?’ ‘Do you plan to write any more books about the yak strangling festival in Panama City?’ etc.).
It’s a shame. Reviewers are good. Reviewers are five star, even when they award we writers fewer than that. When they do, it would be great to be able to explore with them where the author’s intentions have come unstuck. That would help the writer to grow, and it would turn Goodreads into a wonderful vehicle for discussing of the craft of writing, one from which we could all learn.
P.S. The statue at the top of the page isn’t meant to be me. However, if I was going to get undressed in public it would be good to look like him, rather than like the guy on the right.