Recently I attended a neighborhood book club (my first). We read a book by a male author writing a female main character. It was in my opinion a wonderful book and deservedly a best seller. It was full of warmth and insight into the human condition, and written skillfully. There was one scene that really stuck out to me, though, because the main character acted in a way I couldn't account for, a way that was very different than her past behavior. I brought up this scene with the ladies to ask why they thought the author wrote that scene. One of the ladies said, "Well, he's a man. He probably just doesn't understand women."
She certainly meant no harm, but for some reason I was so smacked by that I couldn't even respond. The book was well done--surely we owed the author enough to assume he made that choice with thought and purpose. I realized that in book clubs across the country, my choices were likely summarily dismissed. Every time I've read a review of one of my books from a dissatisfied reader and they've speculated why I failed with that book, their assumptions have been completely wrong. I've encountered this dozens of times, but here are just a couple of examples:
Speculation: "Austenland stinks. Shannon Hale clearly rushed through this one."
Truth: I worked on that book for seven years, my longest period for one book, and didn't try to sell it until I had it rewritten and polished to where I was satisfied with it.
Speculation: "Shannon Hale is jumping on the graphic novel bandwagon when it's popular to try and cash in."
Truth: We started working on rapunzel's revenge years ago, when I had no idea children's publishers were interested in graphic novels and would soon be publishing them. And this is no cash cow. We split royalties with the illustrator, so I'll earn half as much as I do with my prose novels. It truly was a labor of love.
For me, the kindest and also most honest way of living is to give people the benefit of the doubt. Say you happen to love three books by an author but not her fourth. There are many people who love it, and others who don't. The fact that some people love it seems to suggest that the book didn't fail utterly--just with some readers. That doesn't change the fact that it didn't jive with you, and that's okay. But why not just assume that the writer still did her best by her own internal reader? After all, given the history, that's the most likely conclusion, and it's also the kinder one.
Kindness aside, giving authors the benefit of the doubt makes us better readers. Instead of dismissing a scene or character or plot device that rubs us wrong, we might ask, Why did the author make that choice? Reading it as a carefully intended choice rather than as a mistake gives us the chance to explore the story and discover connections and wisdom we might have otherwise tossed aside. When I haven't loved a book, I really enjoy talking with someone who did and hearing how they read it. Quite often, my opinion changes about the book. My own reading experience with it wasn't great, but seeing it from someone else's perspective helps me appreciate it after the fact.
Don't believe everything you read
Often people will blog about a book event after the fact. Almost every time I've read on a blog what other people reported I said, it's been wrong. Sometimes very wrong. "There's no way I said that, I don't even believe that!" I don't think any of the bloggers were trying to misquote me. They heard and took from my comments what they wanted or needed to hear, and then wrote that down, believing it was accurate. This is very common. It has taught me to be very skeptical about second hand (and especially third hand) reporting.
By the same token, please hesitate before judging me or my books by something I said in an interview. They are quite often not to be trusted. I wish I could only do written interviews, so I could make sure the words truly are what I spoke. Magazines and newspapers often do phone or live interviews. Sometimes we'll talk for an hour and they'll whittle it down to a couple of minutes worth of information. Often they ask leading questions, trying to get you to say something sensational or to speak to the topic they want to write about. This was especially common when austenland came out. Everyone had opinions about why Austen was still read and why the continued craze. They wanted me to say something to support their own opinion, so they would toss out 90% of what I said and quote the part that worked for their story (and usually not word-for-word since it was over the phone and they didn't record me, just took notes). I don't mean to cast blame--this is just how it works. But again, it's taught me that when I hear second hand something troubling that someone says, to take with a grain of salt, especially when I've had cause to respect that person in the past.
When I turn in my polished manuscript, it then goes to a copy editor, who checks it for grammatical errors, typos, etc. We depend on them to be thorough, but sometimes they're sadly not. After we fix all the found errors, the manuscript gets typeset. In the transfer from, say, a Microsoft Word document to Quark, scads of errors happen. It's inevitable. Another copy editor is supposed to go through it again and correct those errors. Some are better at their job than others. The author has no direct control over this part of the process. Sadly, it's my name on the cover, and I'm accountable for all the errors in a book, whether or not I caused them. Understanding how it works has made me much more sympathetic to authors whose books are riddled with typos and such.
Next post: reviewing books. And for those interested, I commented on the previous post with my POV about a certain leaked manuscript.