Recently, Elizabeth Moon, a multiple-award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy — her works include the Deed of Paksenarrion trilogy, the Vatta’s War series, and the Serrano Legacy series — described in an email the experience of having a reader contact her about how one of her books had changed this reader’s life. The subject heading on Elizabeth’s email was “Why It Matters,” and I reprint excerpts of the email here with Elizabeth’s permission:
Readers bring their own life, their own beliefs and experiences, to our work…we can’t anticipate how the work and the reader will interact, we have zero control of that encounter. Sometimes they bring something that prevents their entering the work at all–they skate on the surface, looking for typos. Sometimes they’re briefly engaged and then tossed out when we hit one of their hot buttons or something that bores that particular person. We get emails asking why we don’t write more like so and-so, or telling us we’re almost as good as someone else (whom we don’t really like), or misunderstanding the whole point of the book, or criticizing our style or the cover art. We get emails from people who actually like the book, too, of course.
And then there are these, the ones where the book and the reader interacted with explosive force in a good way, and a way that we the writer did not predict. Could not predict. And for that reader, at that moment, only our book, with its peculiar (in the old sense) combination of words, could have done that–could have eased that heartache, or given someone hope that another attack on the brick wall was worth it…
I actually had already started planning this last post in my “The Writer and the Reader” series before I received Elizabeth’s email, and it fit so well with what I had intended to write, that I had to include it. I have received emails like the one Elizabeth describes — messages in which a reader tells me that my book has changed his or her life. Sometimes these changes are small, although still deeply satisfying from a writer’s perspective. I’ve heard from young readers who tell me that before they encountered my books they never liked to read, but that since reading them they read all the time. At other times, though, these changes are far weightier — parents and children reconciled, marriages saved, addictions kicked, even suicides averted.
There’s no predicting, of course, when a book might have such a powerful effect on a reader, and we as authors can’t write for the purpose of touching our readers this way. It’s kismet, really. Art touches us all in unique ways. I can’t explain why some movies move me to tears while others bore me to tears, nor can I tell you why one painting in a museum mesmerizes me while the one next to it leaves me completely unaffected. But we all know that this true, just as we know that just because we love a book or a piece of music that doesn’t necessarily mean that our friends or spouses will love it. I have a friend whose taste in music I respect a great deal. But there are times when he raves about a cd that I wind up not liking at all. These are matters of taste, right?
Or are they? I would argue that when it comes to books — and perhaps other forms of art as well — there’s more at work than simple taste. Literature is a collaborative enterprise. That has been the underlying assumption of my posts for the last three weeks. The Writer and the Reader. The act of creation doesn’t end when an author submits a novel. We, as readers, share in that creative act. All of us bring to the novels we read our own set of experiences, emotions, assumptions, intellectual interests, etc. Let me put it another way: If you and I pick up the same novel in the bookstore, take it home and read it, we’re going to come away from our reading experiences with different reactions. The book is the same — it’s not like different copies have different words in them. But we’re going to perceive those words in ways that are utterly unique. Take it a step further: I can read a book as a 20 year-old, a 40 year-old, and a 60 year-old, and have three different reading experiences. I’m not making a value judgement here. I’m not saying necessarily that the 60 year-old me will get more out of the book than the 20 year-old; just that he’ll get something different out of it.
So what? you might say. This is sophistry. It’s circular reasoning. Individuals will perceive all sorts of things in individual ways, so our books are different for everyone who reads them. Big deal. But I’m saying more than that. When we try to sell our books to publishers we’re often asked “Who’s the audience? What is your market?” As a businessman, I need to have an answer. As an author I want to say, “How the hell should I know?” There are 16 year-old boys and 84 year-old women who will love it. And there are some of both who might hate it, too. I want my books to resonate with as broad an audience as possible. I would hope that if you read my books when you’re 20 and 40 and 60, you’ll find something entertaining and thought-provoking each time.
That’s what makes great literature special. My daughter recently read To Kill a Mockingbird, and she loved it. She was totally captivated. Harper Lee wrote a book that spoke to readers in 1960 and still resonates with them fifty years later. What a terrific accomplishment. I should be so lucky. But when fiction works, that’s what it does. It reaches across time and space, age and gender, politics and religion and race and any other cultural boundary you can imagine. It might not reach each of us in the same way, but it reaches nevertheless. It is constantly evolving, remaking itself, maintaining its cultural and social relevance, even as it remains utterly static. The words never change, the characters and narrative threads are the same. And yet it captures new readers. I doubt that Harper Lee could have envisioned the culture in which my daughter is now immersed, but still her book reached through that culture and grabbed hold of my daughter’s heart.
Our books might not always change the lives of our readers, and they certainly won’t appeal to everyone. But I’m not sure those are things for which authors should even strive. Last week I made lists of things authors and readers can do to fulfill that covenant I described. What they really boil down to for the writer is this: Write the book you need and want to write. Write it as well as you can. And this week I’d add: Understand that some people won’t like it, and that some might not get out of it exactly what you want them to. That’s okay. Your readers are part of the process, too. When a book succeeds, it doesn’t just do it once. It does it again and again with each new reader.
David B. Coe