Housekeeping first: the draw for a copy of The Ale Boy’s Feast goes to Martin LaBar, who made himself eligible by linking to his review of Patricia McKillip’s Ombria in Shadow. (I read the review, and now I want to read the book!) Martin, could you e-mail me your mailing address? You can reach me at thomson DOT rachel AT gmail.com. Thanks!
I like to require that content entrants link to a review they’ve recently written because I’m a believer in reviews. The book market is crowded, our little genre is much overlooked, and word of mouth is still absolutely key to book sales. I’m a self-published author, which means I face an even-more-than-ordinary uphill climb to sales and exposure, and I so appreciate getting reviews. Even if they don’t inspire sales, they’re a shot in the arm that keeps me going.
But reviews have their downside, too. They can showcase the collision between author intent and reader perception–or worse, reader expectation. A recent review of my novel Worlds Unseen left me scratching my head. The reviewer said,
“If I had read this book purely for fun, not knowing that it was intended to be a Christian allegory, I would have wholeheartedly loved it.”
The head-scratching part: the book isn’t an allegory. My promotional materials don’t call it an allegory. In fairness to the reviewer, the higher-ups at her magazine might have said something misleading when they sent the book to her–or are Christian readers so conditioned to expect allegory in “visionary fiction” that they’re unable to read it as anything else?
I’m certainly not the only writer of Christian spec fic to run into this. As each book was released, readers of Jeffrey Overstreet’s Auralia Thread continually commented on the “God allegory” of the Keeper–in spite of Mr. Overstreet’s continued and public protestations that the allegory did not exist. Famously, Tolkien resisted popular public readings of Lord of the Rings as a religious or political allegory. This seems to be a constant problem in our genre: the writer tells a story, the reader brings expectations, and clash!–the results are messy.
But it’s not just in allegory-spotting that readers have expectations. Sometimes it seems those with a little training are the worst. I’ve seen George Bryan Polivka’s absolutely brilliantly written Blaggard’s Moon criticized as poorly structured because it doesn’t follow a traditional linear plot line. Poetry is criticized for being “too hard to understand,” plots are criticized for being sad, creativity is criticized because readers wanted the ending they expected–the one they’ve seen a thousand times before.
Reviews, I suppose, are a double-edged sword. I stand by any reviewer’s right to say exactly what they think about any book, and even to be wrong-headed if they want to be (I can think of several reviews I’ve written that didn’t make anyone happy). But as we’ve all heard in many a speculative story before, “With great power comes great responsibility”–and that includes the power to share opinions in a public forum. I hope that more readers who enjoy the heady freedom of the Internet will also accept the responsibility that comes with it: to read fairly, with an open mind, and to resist imposing expectations upon what they read.