Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Tess Gerritsen on Reading as a Writer

On Sandra McDonald's Live Journal I came across a link to a blog entry by medical/crime/thriller writer Tess Gerritsen. She ponders why reader responses to books that she so loves can be so negative, and posits her take on it.

What she says makes plenty of sense to me, but a few folks who commented took a bit of offense at it.

What do you think?

You can read the post HERE.

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21 Comments:

Blogger Victor said...

Pienso que escribe bien

10:04 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Um... Okay.

11:33 PM  
Blogger Cheryl said...

To a certain extent she's right, and indeed the same sentiment could apply to any artistic endeavor. Think about the people who claim that their kids can paint better than Picasso.

However, people read for many different reasons, and get many different things out of a book, and that isn't always obvious because a book is generally only produced by one person.

Consider a movie review. If the reviewer pans the performance of the male lead, that could also be taken as a criticism of the director, but the camera people and sound team are not likely to take it personally. But in a book review, whether the reviewer hates the plot, the characters, the world building or the style, all of those things are down to the author.

Now, just as some people writing movie reviews may know a lot about acting or special effects, but not much about plot or camera work, so people writing book reviews may be very interested in some aspects of novel creation and not others.

One graphic example of this sort of thing is Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow. The book was hugely successful, but there is a small group of hard core science fiction fans who will tell you that it is one of the worst SF books ever written. That is because, for them, the most important aspect of SF is getting your science right. And Mary, in order to get the timings in her story to work, changed the dimensions of the galaxy somewhat.

A slightly more obscure example was a review I read once that panned a book for having "poor characterization". I thought that the characters were really vivid, if not exactly man-in-the-street types. But after thinking about the review for a while I realized what what the reviewer meant was "there were no characters in the book that I could identify with." For that particular reader, that was a key element, without which any book is a failure.

Or just read the many and varied reactions to Hal Duncan's Vellum.

So yes, people who write reviews on Amazon are often pretty clueless about writing. On the other hand they are saying whether the book worked for them or not (at least, those of them who are not just trolls). And they may sometimes pan a book that is very well written for reasons that are important to them, but may not be so obvious to another writer.

11:30 AM  
Blogger a cat of impossible colour said...

It is interesting how such a mildly-written post in such a neutral tone can spark such anger (on the part of a couple of people). I guess the responses she received show how readers can take away completely different experiences from the same piece of text, a la Amazon. Tess's points make perfect sense to me - I can read a book that I don't necessarily enjoy, but can still be impressed by the quality of the writing because I know how hard it is.

Slight tangent, but I find that sometimes as a writer I can be an irritatingly picky reader - spending so much time analysing the writing technique in particular books that I find it hard to get lost in the story. Do you have that experience?

Andrea

2:36 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Cheryl,

My daughter does paint better than Picasso, but she's... unusual.

Other than that, though, I'm in complete agreement. I think I read something about "poor characterization" too... Oh, yeah, and it was about Acacia! Oh well, can't please everyone.

I'm curious about your thoughts on The Sparrow. I read Russell's WWII book, but haven't read The Sparrow. Should I?

Hey Andrea,

True, I didn't think there was anything offensive in the comments first time through, but that's partially because I'm a writer too and feel largely the same way. When I did read the comments from the folks that took offense I could understand where they were coming from. Empathy, but not exactly agreement.

You know, at a stage in my development as a writer I had exactly the experience you describe. It was the worst when I was a graduate student. I was so critical/analytical while reading that I forgot about enjoying reading. For several years I actually feared that being a writer had destroyed my love of reading. Weird. The good news is I got over it. I learned to love reading again, and to balance that analytical eye with enjoyment of the story on offer.

5:25 PM  
Blogger a cat of impossible colour said...

Although I'll be interested to see if Cheryl would recommend The Sparrow, I have to put my two cents in too :) I really loved that book. The science is faulty in places, but I think it's worth reading purely for the beauty of her characters. The sequel, Children of God, is not as good, I think, but worth reading also. In it she does considerably more world-building than in the first one, but I think in doing so she loses some of the emotional power. I'd be interested to know what you think if you do read them.

Andrea

5:52 PM  
Blogger Meghan said...

I'm going to break rank here.

I'm afraid that for me Tess Gerritsen comes across as pretty condescending in this blog. Her stance seems to be: I'm an author. So if the average reader doesn't appreciate a book that I love than their opinion is worthless because they don't know what they're talking about.

Here's the part that I think really set people off:

"We writers notice what the average reader completely misses. We understand the enormous effort that goes into creating a special character and brilliant dialogue and a complex story."

That's not fair. What Tess may consider "complex" writing could also be perceived as nothing more than high-felutant nonsense. What she may consider to be "brilliant dialogue" I might perceive as pointless banter added by the author to make me care about a character I have no emotional investment in.

At the end of the day, author or no, it's really just her opinion whether a book is well-written or not. Being an author doesn't automatically make your opinion more valid than the average reader's. I'm sure that's not what she meant (I hope not at any rate), but that's how her blog reads to me.


Just my two-cents.

8:01 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Meghan,

Hiya. Your two cents are certainly welcome. Every penny counts. So getting two of them is even better.

Certainly, if it was true that her stance is "I'm an author. So if the average reader doesn't appreciate a book that I love than their opinion is worthless because they don't know what they're talking about" that would be rather obnoxious. I don't think that's really what she was saying, though. I'm not her; I don't really know, but I read the message without the condescension being a big part of it. That's probably because there are aspects of being a writer and teacher that have shaped my perspective.

For example, I teach writing and literature. Day after day I see how very different my understanding of words is than my students. I'm trying to teach them. That's why I'm there. If I didn't know more about writing than they did there wouldn't be any reason for them to pay to take a class with me.

Quite often, especially early in classes, I'll assign a story and then come into class and ask them what they thought. If I just leave it at that, quite often I don't get much back from them. Some will say it was boring. Nothing happened. It wasn't believable. There wasn't really a point... That's their initial reaction, or at least the reaction of quite a few students. If I stopped there and say, "Okay, well, sorry it sucked" I wouldn't be teaching them anything. Instead, I tend to take all that in, and then say, "Okay, well, I actually think that the story is a lot better than that. Let me tell you some of the ways it works for me." And then I might stand there for twenty minutes, sighting details in the story, plot points, careful descriptions, little clues, underlying themes, a different way of reading the ending... And by the end of that lecture...

Well, some of them will still think the story stunk, but in general I will see and feel a different perspective from the class. And, hopefully, it'll help them read other stories more carefully, looking for more.

Now, I'm not saying that people need to like stories like that. All I'm saying is that many stories are crafted by the writer to be understood on those terms. So readers that don't notice (or care to) some of those things ARE reading differently than people that do.

But when I say that I don't mean it as any sort of condescension. Those students are complete people. They may learn to read even better, or they may be brilliant in lots of other ways. But do I think that I can speak about literature from a more informed standpoint than the hundreds of students that I've taught over the years? Sure. And I accept the same about fields that aren't my specialty.

I like classical music, for example. I have my favorites that I listen to when I'm writing. I'd be happy to tell someone that I like this piece more than that one, but I'm aware that I have no idea what goes into making either. I have no idea if one is easier than another. Or more original. Or influenced by so and so. Or in dialogue with such and such.

Meghan, you're a writer, too. Don't you feel that your devotion to writing means that you're invested in it in lots of ways that a casual reader isn't?

9:05 PM  
Blogger Meghan said...

You have excellent points. As a teacher you have to make students think about works of literature instead of just dismissing them out of hand. I'm sure that's HARD, especially with the classics. And writers know how difficult it is to write. We can appreciate the whole "A" for effort thing. And of course I'm baffled when people don't like your work, or the work of Scott Oden or George RR Martin.

But Tess seems to make an unintentional blanket statement: When the "average" reader disagrees with her on a book, they're wrong because they just don't "get" it. I AM an average reader. So if I don't like a work that she does, it doesn't always mean I don't "get" what the author of that work meant. Sometimes...well, the book just isn't that well-written. But then, that's just MY opinion. As a writer. No. More importantly, as a READER. An average reader.

BTW, I like these kind of discussions. I think it would be a good one to bring up in your classes!

11:10 PM  
Blogger Cheryl said...

Regarding sparrows, you can check out my reviews of The Sparrow and Children of God. But the short version is "read them", because unless you are the sort who gets outraged by changes to the dimensions of the galaxy you'll find them interesting and challenging.

Meghan:

Being an author doesn't automatically make your opinion more valid than the average reader's.

Well, in my time I've certainly been told that I had no right to pass judgment on books because I wasn't a writer myself. That tended to come mostly from fans and from wannabe writers rather than people who were actually selling well. I happen to disagree with that, but I'm also aware that it is a very widely held belief. Indeed, it is one of the reasons I have stopped writing reviews.

On the other side I've seen someone in the audience at a convention panel on reviewing state angrily that the panelists (who included George Martin) had no right to pass judgment on what is good writing or not, because that's just their opinion. This person went on to state that there were no such things as objective standards in writing and that anyone's writing was just as good as anyone else's. I disagree with that view as well.

The way I see it is this. If I say "that's a good book" then I'm expressing an opinion. You are entitled to disagree. If I write a long and detailed review explaining why I think the book is good then I'm making an argument. You can challenge that argument, you can even challenge the assumptions on which it is based. But if you dismiss my review by saying, "oh, that's just your opinion" then I'm not going to have much respect for you.

Of course one of the things about Amazon is that many of the "reviews" you find there really are just statements of opinion with no argument to back them up.

6:17 AM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Meghan,

And, when all is said and done, we writers need those "average readers". They are, in truth, the audience we write for. If we only wrote for other writers we'd be in bad shape financially. (Which many writers are, come to think of it.)

Cheryl,

I'm so NOT a person that gets "outraged by changes to the dimensions of the galaxy". I'd have to know what the dimensions of the galaxy are in the first place. And I don't. So these books sound very interesting.

6:35 PM  
Anonymous Ed said...

No doubt writers read differently. If you're reading something really good, you'd be derelict in your duties if you weren't thinking about how you could learn from (or outright steal) its techniques.

I disagree strongly, however, with Gerritsen's conclusion that writers, as people who can write books, have a better insight into what the good ones are. I can appreciate a writer's tricks, but at the end of the day, that's all they are--tricks. They may enhance what's already there, but they're no substitute for the emotional and intellectual cores of a really good novel.

And I think your "average" reader is pretty good at honing in on those cores. There may be a billion counterexamples of great books that aren't immediately accessible, but if, as Gerritsen argues there at the end, there are some books that can only be appreciated by the experts, that should immediately call into question whether they're any good in the first place.

8:15 PM  
Blogger Cheryl said...

Ed:

Let's see if I've got this right. You maintain that readers know better than writers what makes a book "good" or not, yes? So, um, why don't we let the readers write the books from now on. At least they would know what they were doing.

Everyone:

An interesting article in The Guardian on what "good characterization" actually means. (Thanks to Elizabeth hand for the top off.)

10:53 AM  
Anonymous Ed said...

No, I don't think readers are always or inherently better at recognizing the good parts of novels than writers. I just think they tend to have good instincts about these things.

Plenty of writers do, too, or they could hardly write anything that connects with so many people, but when a writer starts to get too interested in the craft of what he's reading, it seems similar to when a musician is raving about the technical proficiency of a band he admires but you can only shrug your shoulders at: sure, it sounds fine, and you can maybe even admire the skill behind such craftsmanship, but really, who cares besides other musicians?

I don't mean to appeal to popular opinion, exactly, but if a book is revered by writers and shrugged at by readers, I wouldn't jump to blame the readers for "not getting it." More likely the book, for however skillfully it's written, just doesn't connect in the way good art should. If you have to be able to write novels yourself to truly appreciate it, how great can it really be?

6:08 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Hi Ed,

You make sense. But I also believe that it is possible that quality works of art/writing/music etc are sometimes appreciated more by peers than by a general audience. That makes sense to me, but it doesn't mean I'm blaming the masses for not getting it. Some works are best appreciated by a smaller audience. So long as the writer of such a novel doesn't complain to much about not hitting the bestseller lists I'm okay with that.

I still say, though, that I don't imagine Gerritsen was talking about highbrow works that the masses aren't smart enough for. Maybe she was, that's not what I read. Remember that she is a highly successful author of commercial fiction; you don't get to be that without respecting readers.

I read it more as alluding to those people that seem to think the exact opposite of what I (or you) think about a beloved work. And I guess I also related it to those very negative reviews that seek to strip a work of ANY worth at all. Like one starred reviews for Dune, Beloved, A Game of Thrones, Blood Meridian, The Lord of the Rings, for example (and with my genres mixed with impunity). It's fine with me for people to not particularly like any of these books, but say that, contrary to millions of opinions, War and Peace just sucks turds is... highly questionable.

But I guess this is a separate issue, isn't it? Gerritsen was speaking specifically about writers and non-writers. I've more been thinking about writers and non-writers AND complete wackos, which is a different dynamic, really.

I tell you what - I'll post something on this angle soon... with examples!

9:38 PM  
Blogger Cheryl said...

Ed:

Nicely put, that was very clear. I don't suppose many art critics will agree with you, but you have a clear rationale there and you are by no means the first person to advance such a definition of "good art".

But I think we are now agreed that a writer can have some understanding of what makes a book "good" by your definition. Indeed, if writers want to sell their work, they have to understand these things. There is an art to writing a book that will have widespread popular appeal. And here we can come back to what Ms. Gerritsen said.

In that scene in Amadeus she quotes the Emperor of Austria has clearly not enjoyed Mozart's music. That's his opinion, and he's entitled to it. But Mozart asks him to explain why he didn't like it. The Emperor isn't a musician, or even an amateur music critic. He doesn't have the ability to explain his dislike. But having been put on the spot he feels the need to justify himself and he comes out with a comment that most people will regard as daft.

And this, I think, is the essence of Gerritsen's complaint. There's nothing wrong with not liking a book. Not is there anything wrong with being unable to explain your dislike in specialist writer jargon. But if you say you don't like a book, and attempt to justify your dislike in a writerly way, but are actually talking nonsense, then writers will scratch their heads in bemusement.

(Note, however, that I still think she's only part right, because not everyone reads for the same reason, and it is entirely possible for some people to deeply dislike a book that is actually very well written by many standards of measurement.)

10:05 AM  
Anonymous Ed said...

Actually, I think Gerritsen was very specifically talking about loftier, more highbrow works (at least relatively speaking--say, how Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye is definitely artier than, like, Little Sister).

And I don't think she's just referring to people who, like the Austrian Emperor in Amadeus, lack the ability to back up their opinions about the books they don't like:

"When writers are asked which of their books is their favorite, they will often name a title that their readers failed to appreciate, a title that perhaps sold poorly. That book may have been the most challenging, the most artistic of all the writer’s works, the one book that he’ll be proudest of. Yet the majority of his readers won’t recognize the achievement… because they themselves aren’t writers."

She believes that writers, with the insight that comes from writing, are able to see these misunderstood works for the "masterpieces" they are, while people who can't see and appreciate the hard work and technical mastery that went into them are likely to brush them off.

The unappreciated works Gerritsen's talking about sound more like failures to me. Interesting failures, probably, many of which have lots of redeeming qualities and may even approach greatness, but failures as art nonetheless, because for whatever else they're doing well, they forgot to be engaging beyond a very narrow scope.

To me, the best fiction--the real masterpieces--are the ones that are working on too many levels to not have some measure of popular appeal. Peer-beloved works have their place, but I think that place is closer to curiosities than classics.

Interesting discussion, by the way. Looking forward to your blog post, David.

10:58 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Quoting Ed - "To me, the best fiction--the real masterpieces--are the ones that are working on too many levels to not have some measure of popular appeal."

I can't argue with that in the slightest. I spend a great deal of time trying to write works like that, actually...

3:27 PM  
Anonymous Ed said...

I thought Acacia did a great job blending a gripping fantasy story with some interesting stuff about nationhood, economics, and race. In terms of what I've been blathering on about here, I liked it a lot more than the Song of Ice and Fire series, because for all the other things Martin does well, I never got much from those books other than that the strong should protect the weak but usually end up trampling all over them instead.

8:38 PM  
Blogger David Anthony Durham said...

Ed,

Thanks for the incredibly kind words. That "blending" is just what I'm trying for, so if it worked for you I'm very pleased. Interesting thing about Martin...

When I've heard him talk and also read interviews he often reminds Ice&Fire fans that he has many other books out there other than that series. Everybody knows that, but the sales of those other books never take off the same way.

I decided recently to try out some of his earlier stuff, and I've been reading selections from Dreamsongs. Very good stuff. I'm especially enjoying his science fiction, which is filled with ideas and character complexity and ruminations on all sorts of subjects. He's a writer with many dimensions, not all of them contained in Ice&Fire.

2:04 AM  
Blogger Cheryl said...

Ed:

I liked Acacia for the same reasons that you did. But I've seen also that the presence of political statements in novels is something that will annoy many readers. I've also seen people complain that "all that worldbuilding" gets in the way of the story.

This is going back to my original dispute with Gerritsen, which is that people can strongly dislike a book for a whole variety of reasons, even when it is well written.

6:05 AM  

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