Saturday, February 18, 2012

Weighing Reader Sensibilities: "This Book Made Me So Mad!"

One way books get noticed by readers is at websites such as and These are non-commercial sites that function as social networking places for those who love books. Users exchange recommendations and reviews, and hold discussion about their favorite reads. The very nature of this type of site invites the formation of cliques.

Recently, I was cautioned that a specific group of people on one of these sites "don't like infidelity, menage, or anything like that". Over several days, I came to understand what that meant: this group likes a sweet little M/M romance, wrapped up in a neat bow, with no real drama, no real-life questions or struggles - at least not the type that are uncomfortable and for which there are no easy answers. And I don't want to knock these types of books. Heaven knows readers need a respite from the seriousness of their daily lives. But the attitude inherent in this clique discourages books that deal with heavier subject matter, and worse, the group dynamic discourages members from exploring such titles.

What is the job of a writer? First, perhaps it is to entertain. If the book isn't entertaining no one is going to be reading it. Beyond that though, it gets more complex. Sometimes the job of the writer is to offer escapism. Sometimes - maybe at the other end of the spectrum of reading experiences - the job of the writer is to challenge the reader to think. I personally think the best books accomplish both. What about a book that makes the reader uncomfortable? What about characters that do things the reader finds reprehensible?

I think that a book full of nasty characters is not entertaining. Not for me. Similarly, a book that offers a main character that is unattractive from an ethical or moral standpoint, is difficult to stick with. But what about the character who is pleasing, and commits a heinous act? Do we do away with the book?

Life is messy. Good people do things they shouldn't to one another. Sometimes they are forgiven. Sometimes not. There is a lot of gray area in real life; the black and white we find in fictional stories is not often realistic. As a writer, one has to decide whether a book is going to

- offer simple mindless escapism. This is not an unworthy goal. Bringing a little escape to a weary reader is always worthwhile.

- challenge attitudes and beliefs. If a writer chooses this path, one has to be prepared for some fallout: an angry reviewer here and there, people who just can't swallow the details of the story enough to bring themselves to a place of contemplation.

- do both. This is tricky. Because in order to do both you have to challenge in a very quiet way; you have to avoid interrupting the peace of escapism while subtly raising some questions in the reader's mind.

Again, I think the best books (and their authors) accomplish both. I am still working on it.

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