Monday, January 19, 2015

No such thing as 'The Best'



Jane Austen wrote the following paragraph in her personal papers, about people's reception to her books. I loved stumbling upon it on an Austen website.

'Cassandra liked 'Emma' better the 'Pride & Prejudice' but not so well as 'Mansfield Park.' Mrs A. found 'E' more entertaining than 'MP' but not so interesting as 'P&P'. Mr Cockerelle liked 'E' so little, Fanny wouldn't even send me his opinion. Mrs A Bramstone thought 'S&S' and 'P&P' downright nonsense, but decided 'MP' is the worst.'

Having written nine novels at this stage, I found I could relate to her. If I relied on public opinion to help me decide how I'm going, I'd be very confused. Some people have said they prefer 'Picking up the Pieces' to anything else I've written, because of the strong forgiveness theme. Others think 'Best Forgotten' is the best, for the mystery thread, while a few even choose 'A Design of Gold,' including one man who was touched by my hero's past as it was similar to his own. Others say my latest, 'Imogen's Chance' drew them in more than all the others.

The only clear conclusion is that 'the best' is subjective. I follow a reviewer from America whose opinions I often agree with, and she shocked me last week by writing a harsh review about a book I loved. To add to the confusion of opinions, any person's feelings can change down the track. I once read Beverly Cleary's 'Ramona' books with my kids. I remembered them as a series I vaguely enjoyed as a kid, when I identified with the heroine. To my great surprise, years later I found myself identifying strongly with the mother as well as both daughters, and loved the books!

Differing opinions may be explained partly because all readers process books according to their own unique attitudes and life experiences. Last year, I read a memoir by a lady named Rebecca Mead who followed the footsteps of George Eliot. She wrote, 'My 'Middlemarch' is not the same as anyone else's Middlemarch', and not even the same as my 'Middlemarch' of twenty-five years ago.'

It would seem that in spite of what we may expect, the experience of any given book isn't something that simply strikes a generic impression into every heart. Life would be pretty simple if this was so. What if each reader brings part of his or her own personality to the experience of reading our stories? That's why differences of opinion can be poles apart. It also means that not only the writer's character and way of expression is responsible for good impressions, but the reader's too. This leaves us free to simply shrug and accept random reports that a particular person hated our work. We needn't believe that we're bad authors just because we didn't strike a chord with Jane Doe.

On the flip side, I'm well aware that whenever a reader thanks me for a good read, it's more than just a throw-away compliment. It means that while they read my novel, something deep in their heart responded to something in mine. Imagine if somebody with admirable, heroic qualities ever attribute them partly to reading our books. There's a thought for another blog post.





Paula Vince is a South Australian author of contemporary, inspirational fiction. She lives in the beautiful Adelaide Hills, with its four distinct seasons, and loves to use her environment as settings for her stories. Her novel, 'Picking up the Pieces' won the religious fiction section of the International Book Awards in 2011, and 'Best Forgotten' was winner of the CALEB prize the same year. She is also one of the four authors of 'The Greenfield Legacy', Australia's first and only collaborated Christian novel. Her most recent novel, 'Imogen's Chance' was published April 2014. For more of Paula's reflections, please visit her blog, It Just Occurred to Me. You may also like to visit her book review blog, The Vince Review where she also interviews other authors.
 



23 comments:

  1. Thanks Paula. That's an interesting thought. In my days as a Uni lecturer, we'd have student evaluations once a semester. I remember reading the open-ended comments one year and someone said something like "She should stop telling stupid jokes" and the very next person said "Nola's got a great sense of humour. Love the jokes".

    We're never going to please everyone and no matter how finely we hone our craft, there'll always be someone who doesn't like it. In Christian fiction particularly, there'll always be people who don't like it simply because it is Christian.

    Do you ever find though that it can be tricky distinguishing between constructive criticism vs just differences in taste? I'd be interested in your thoughts. Thanks for another thought-provoking post :)

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    1. Hi Nola,
      Firstly, I'm certain I would have among those who loved your jokes. But it's a great example of what I was thinking.

      What you say about Christian fiction is spot on. I often come across a couple of lowish book reviews by people who just want to vent, 'I didn't know this was Christian and there's too much 'God' stuff in it.' We take those with a grain of salt, although it does make me wonder why someone would choose to give 1 or 2 stars when it's clear that they simply don't like the genre.

      I've to ponder really carefully about whatever anybody says, because I've found that often there is constructive criticism, which I've benefited from. Sometimes one of the main differences is that when somebody criticises aspects I love in novels by other authors, it's probably a difference in taste.

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    2. * would have been among those.

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  2. I've had a similar experience rereading books I used to love, and realising I've grown out of them. I truly admire the talent of those writers who can make their books timeless by appealing to a range of readers (or the same readers at a range of times).

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    1. Hi Iola,
      The same thing has happened to me. I remember a book I loved in High School about a group of kids forming their own drama group, which I tried to read with my kids in more recent years. I'd built it up to them so much based on my memories, and we all face palmed.

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  3. Books are no different than movies. Many of our lunch time conversations in the staff room are about movies people have seen. I remember sitting back once and wondering if we had a roomful of readers, would the opinion about what constitutes a great read be as diverse?

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    1. Hi Susanne,
      It's a conversation which has the potential to never stop. Even within our loungeroom at home, there are so many different opinions about the merits of movies just seen, voices tend to get raised :)

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  4. Thank you for the encouragements Paula. God bless you.

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    1. Hi Rachel,
      It does help us remember not to get too downhearted at times.

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  5. Thanks for that insightful post Paula. Yes, it's true. A person's enjoyment of a book is not just about how well it is written but it's also due to the subjective experiences of the reader. The longer I write - the more I realise that writing to please God has to be the cornerstoone of my writing. Not everyone will be pleased by what I've written. But if I write to please Him who called me - I know my job is done - no matter how many people like or dislike it.

    Like Iola - I too am amazed at writers who are able to write for a timeless audience like LMM. Thank you for your 9 books and the great pleasure I've had reading some of them. Looking forward to reading more as my budget permits! :) Blessings on your writing.

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    1. Hi Anusha,
      Yes, it's all we can do. Sometimes we need to stand back and remember that we have nothing to do with whether or not we strike a chord in others' hearts.
      LMM was great that way. Although we find her work timeless, I wonder how she'd find the twenty-first century. We'll never know, but I wouldn't be surprised if she fitted right in.

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  6. Thanks, Paula. So many factors go into whether we enjoy reading a particular book or not--it could even be that too many other things are going on in our life at the time or that we aren't well or we're worried about something. So as authors, it's important to listen to criticism and try to find the things we need to work on but then just let the rest go. As someone has already said above, you can't please everyone.

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    1. Hi Jo-Anne,
      Yes, you're absolutely right. Things which you've mentioned, which seem so little, may turn out to have a disproportionately big impact on whether or not we enjoy a particular book. As you say, if an individual picks up any given book a few weeks later, it could still have an impact on their overall impression.

      Even more reason not to take anyone's opinions, either positive or negative, as the total truth.

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  7. 'It means that while they read my novel, something deep in their heart responded to something in mine.' - LOVE that quote. :-)
    This is exactly my argument when it comes to individual 'Improvement'. What is that to each of us - and what is it to the reader that we should 'improve'? I know what it means in a technical sense - plot, structure, punctuation. But what does it mean in a creative sense? If Jane Austen had critics who thought she was a rubbish author and fans who thought her writing was amazing - how are we any different?
    Technical improvement is a necessity. But creative improvement is totally subjective.

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    1. Hi Rose,
      We have to be so discerning when it comes to whether or not to accept suggestions for improvement from just anybody, I agree. Sometimes they may be important for the technical aspects, but it's sad when an author makes hardcore changes for something which is just a matter of personal taste.
      I wonder what Jane Austen's contemporary critics would think if they could foresee how far her writing would go ;)

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  8. Good thoughts. BTW if Jane Doe read the book, that would be alarming. Isn't Jane Doe a euphemism for an unidentified female body? Just kidding. Definitely the reader brings something to the book. Let's face it, without the readers, there wouldn't be a reading experience.

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    1. Hi Meredith,
      A bit alarming when you put it that way :) We'd hope at least she'd enjoy the book. Perhaps I should say Jane Citizen. But yes, readers add so much to the experience. I definitely love being both a writer and a reader.

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  9. Great post Paula. Readers do bring the book alive in their own way each time they read it and there are a great range of different tastes, positions in life, circumstances - even mood - that affect our reading of the book. Yet we can always improve - so it's finding that balance between listening to other's views of our works without taking the occasional negative reaction too personally. I like Rose love your statement "It means that while they read my novel, something deep in their heart responded to something in mine." Making that connection with enough readers makes it worthwhile. :)

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    1. Hi Jenny,
      That's so true. It probably helps explain why there are such lively discussions in book discussion groups I've sat in on over the years. Although the members are all talking about the same book on the surface, their impressions differ markedly. I believe it benefits us to develop the habit of finding that balance you mention when it comes to feedback. We can ask ourselves, 'Is this something I should take on board, or just her (or his) differences to me coming out?'

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  10. The gremlins ate my comment. I said that I loved reading this post. Public opinion is not something I think about in my writing. If I like it and I know God has led me to write it then I'm satisfied. Love the classics. Black Beauty being my favorite. :-)

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  11. Hi Robyn,
    I like your attitude. When you think about it, reading and pondering everything the public says can be simply time wasting.

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