Allegory, reviews, and the clash of reader expectation

Blog | | Wednesday, May 11, 2011
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 […]

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!

Allegory? What do the giant birds represent?

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?

"Poorly written"? For real?

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.

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Rachel Starr Thomson is an author, editor, indie publisher, and writing coach whose writing runs the gamut from walking with God to fantasy fiction to articles on nature and writing. In her other life she’s a poet/storyteller/narrator/singer for Soli Deo Gloria Ballet, a Christian ballet group she co-directs. Browse her books and articles at RachelStarrThomson.com, or check out her Free Stuff page for downloads and lots of online reading.

10 responses

  1. 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 think it’s most likely Christians have been trained that “good fantasy” = “allegory” and a fantasy can’t just be so for its own sake. Our brains are trained to go hunt for it. But it’s not just Christians. (Case in point coming.) It really doesn’t help that most lit classes on any level hardwire the students’ brain to read into it pretty much anything.

    My star example is someone who got a Freudian reading out of a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story (whose title I’ll have to go look up if you want it; won’t take long). Nevermind it’s about an errand boy; somehow the sword he steals is a phallic symbol. I read one short story where my professor surmised that this young girl’s red skirt was indicative of her having had her, ah, time. (Sorry, guys, just making the point.) I had one professor, regarding a story about a girl sexually assaulted, who asked if it was possible that, as her attacker accused, the girl “asked for it” because she was wearing a flower pinned to the top of her dress.

    More examples: I was in an intermediate fiction writing class in which we read three short stories. The first, I wrote with heavy symbolism that everyone said was confusing. So the second one I wrote had little symbolism (mostly just a physical symbol trying to relate a character’s nature to the character) and was told it was a cliche scenario (which it was, but that was beside the point; I knew it was). The third one contained no symbolism. I was at a loss and had a surfer friend tell me one of his crazy stories about the time he surfed through a hurricane (opposite side of the Gulf, so he just got the waves). I wrote it. With exception of one embellishment, I retold the story unchanged. The only difference was that I had him almost drown and he’s saved by a hand he sees but can’t tell (I did point out other surfers were around, btw).

    They decided it was the hand of God as the surfers couldn’t possibly have done it (huh?) and one girl asked if the rhythm of the story was, again, sexual (figure that one out yourself). She was the only one an turned bright red when she realized it, but that’s the point.

    English profs are weird, what can I say? The point is, we’re being trained to read into things what we will.

    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).

    Oh, sure. I’ve decided fan sites can be the most insane places ever. They can be fun reads, though.

    The thing is, not all opinions are created equal.

    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.

    No kidding….
    Kaci Hill’s recent blog: Meditation- A PromiseMy Profile

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  2. For me, reviews fall into three basic categories:

    1. Reviews from the kids who like me.
    2. Reviews from the kids who hate me.
    3. Reviews from the kids who’ve never met me.

    Cat 3′s are the only ones I really spend time with. 1′s feel good, and it’s always welcome to get kudos from my circle of friends, relations, and the one or two people I could dare to call fans, but they’d probably say the nice stuff anyway.

    2′s are inevitable, and there’s nothing I can do to change their opinion, which is probably based on a preconception, stereotype, or something buried deep in their childhood I’ll never reach. Or maybe I panned one of their favorite books on my blog. Yes, my Amazon rating is probably going to drop from their 0ne-star review. So be it.

    3′s, whether positive or negative, tell me whether I’m communicating to a wider audience, and what’s resonating with them. If I’m getting a lot of, “I stumbled across this and really enjoyed it,” or “One of my friends recommended this and I couldn’t put it down,” or “I liked the way he did this, this, and this,” I’m doing something right, something I should probably keep doing. Otherwise, I may need to make some adjustments.
    Fred Warren’s recent blog: May BannerMy Profile

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  3. Great post—and I can definitely relate to (I can think of several reviews I’ve written that didn’t make anyone happy). Heh…

    I used to love allegory, and then I read a good book. I have select few allegories that I like, and those are written in such a way that the allegory doesn’t take over the whole story. Let’s be honest—allegory takes the mystery out of storytelling. That’s Jesus. There’s God. Oh look, it’s Paul—in a fairy land with dragons!

    I think allegory is probably a good thing for younger kids who like to read fantasy. They need something that’s clean, fun, and relates to the Bible. But it gets a bit weird when allegory is seen in books aimed toward older audiences. “Okay, am I reading fantasy or the Bible here?”

    Now, I think there is a HUGE difference between allegory and spiritual inspiration in stories. I can imagine what Tolkien wrote as more like inspiration than allegory, because it doesn’t follow the exact events of the Bible. Instead, there are smaller, more mysterious events. Gandalf has some interesting spiritual conversations with many members of the Fellowship (I specifically think of Pippin while in Minus Tirith during the siege). They aren’t corny occurrences—you can’t point exactly where in the Bible those conversations come from. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t speaking the same Truth.

    When it comes down to it, I think Truth is much more important than the events themselves, in which the Truth is shown. Being inspired by Truth and integrating it into your story isn’t the same as following certain events in history using a different world as your “device”.

    “You should have something to say in a story. But that doesn’t always mean a message. It means truth.” –Andrew Stanton. From Disney’s Twitter account, retweeted by Mr. Overstreet.

    Anyway, if you’ve read this far, thanks for listening to me ramble!
    Nolan’s recent blog: The Skin Map — Stephen R LawheadMy Profile

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  4. When it comes down to it, I think Truth is much more important than the events themselves, in which the Truth is shown. Being inspired by Truth and integrating it into your story isn’t the same as following certain events in history using a different world as your “device”.

    Well said!
    Rachel Starr Thomson’s recent blog: Still Praying in the WildernessMy Profile

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  5. Thanks! I think my comment went through so many changes that it became a little off-topic along the way, so my apologies if it seemed so! ;-)
    Nolan’s recent blog: The Skin Map — Stephen R LawheadMy Profile

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  6. Very interesting. I like it, though.
    Galadriel’s recent blog: From a new fanMy Profile

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  7. Blaggard’s Moon was one of the most amazing books I’ve read. The voicing…the voicing. The language…the poetic richness…the tragedy…the adventure…the storyline…

    I guess I should probably write a review, but I have to get my copy back from a long-distance loan situation. I don’t review much at all due to my own opinions. I do objectivity toward writing all the time, and when I read something that has covers on, I just want to have my crazy subjective experiential moment.

    Within limits. I always heard eisegesis was a sin… ;-)
    C.L. Dyck’s recent blog: Konig’s Fire a Christy Award FinalistMy Profile

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    • “That has covers on” . . .

      I love that!

      Agreed on “Blaggard’s Moon.” Actually, I didn’t really like the story when I first finished it (the voice was brilliant all the time). But the more I thought about it, the richer it got. By the time I’d been done it for a week, I was totally converted :).
      Rachel Starr Thomson’s recent blog: Still Praying in the WildernessMy Profile

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  8. When you really stop to think about it all types of fantasy have allegorical roots, whether mythology or fairy tales. In ancient times people made up ways to deal with what was unknown to them, creating whole realms and populating them with histories and characters. I don’t believe there is a way to avoid the comparison because that mentality is so ingrained in society and cultural.

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    • Point taken, Shawn! However, it’s one thing to see truth in a story, present in an allegorical sense–we’ve been doing that from the earliest days of literature, and in fact, it’s considered one of the marks of great lit that it’s open to some kind of interpretation. But it’s another thing to go into a story assuming that it’s a point-by-point allegory of something–say, Christianity–and then judge the book by how well it lines up with that other thing, rather than judging it by its own merits.
      Rachel Starr Thomson’s recent blog: Still Praying in the WildernessMy Profile

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