In today’s Journal
* Quotes of the Day
* Posts about Christmas
* Topic: Reader Taste? I Don’t Think So
* Of Interest
* The Numbers
Quotes of the Day
“It’s very important to know what you don’t like. A big part of innovation is saying, ‘You know what I’m really sick of?’ … ‘What am I really sick of?’ is where innovation begins.” Jerry Seinfeld
“You don’t question your standards based on what anyone else is doing. You don’t look over at someone else’s race and think, I’m doing a bad job because you’re going faster. You just focus on your own pace.” Carrie Moyer
For some beautiful posts about Christmas, see The Passive Voice at http://www.thepassivevoice.com/.
As a minor and belated Christmas gift from me to you, for fun please view https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vsvOrtcrA5c, and be sure to watch to the end.
Topic: Reader Taste? I Don’t Think So
Friend and scriptwriter Matt wrote, “I have noticed that the more I learn about craft and the more I practice, I’ve been able to spot things in books and stories that the layman (for lack of a better term), doesn’t see.”
First, a disclaimer—In the following diatribe, I’m talking about reading for pleasure. I’m not talking about those times and circumstances when a reader intentionally sets out to “spot things” in a story vs. reading it for pleasure. If you’re “deconstructing” a story in a college class or if you’re studying what the writer did or how he did it in order to create a particular effect, that’s a whole different topic.
Now, you will have noticed Matt didn’t even mention reader taste, and that’s a good thing. To me, the implication of his comment was only that he couldn’t get into a story as a reader so he went looking (as a writer) to find out why.
I’m actually glad he didn’t automatically assume he couldn’t get into the story because of his own tastes as a reader. But that’s the stock answer these days, and in my opinion, it’s an intentional and ridiculous attempt to shift blame for poor writing from the writer to the reader.
I responded in part with this:
“I’ve heard writers (including Dean Wesley Smith) say that whether a reader likes or dislikes a story is always a matter of reader taste. That’s another way of saying the writer bears no responsibility for the quality of the work or for whether a reader is engaged in the story, and that’s just not true.
“For my money, if you set out to read and enjoy a story but you aren’t able to, that’s the writer’s fault, period. He or she simply didn’t pull you into the story.”
Now, at the point of losing interest because he wasn’t pulled into the story, a “layman” reader (one who isn’t also a writer) will go find something else to do. More than likely he won’t wonder wny the story didn’t grab him because wondering why isn’t his job. His only job is to be entertained. He might even assume, wrongly, that the story simply wasn’t to his taste. On the other hand, a reader who’s also a writer might wonder why he wasn’t able to get into a story, and he might go looking.
But let me explain—I think this sort of blame-shift nonsense bothers me so much because it harkens back to the foolish notion that one must “interpret” poetry to understand it. In other words, if you can’t read a poem and come up with the “correct” interpretation, that’s your fault as the reader. Dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.
That idiocy was started in the first place by would-be, false poets who were more interested in being recognized as “avant garde” than in actually writing poetry, and in the second by literature professors who were required to publish or perish. The professors wrote papers on generally unintelligible poetry that made less sense than a grocery list. Of course, only they were able to truly “understand” the poet, so they brushed aside and sometimes even ridiculed their students’ “interpretations.” The professor’s understanding and interpretation must remain unique and exclusive.
And generations of readers were taught by those haughty, selfish professors that they were literally unable to “understand” poetry. How very sad.
I always taught that the poem is started by the poet but it’s finished by the reader. The poet’s personality, beliefs and life experiences go into the poem when it’s written. But on the other end, the reader gets whatever he gets, because the reader’s so-called “interpretation” depends on his own personality, beliefs and life experiences.
And who’s to say the reader is “wrong”? Certainly not the poet, and absolutely not some idiot professor who claims to know exclusively what the poet “meant” because the professor has to harbor some special understanding or not make tenure.
So just in case some of you labor under the misconception that you “can’t understand” poetry, here’s the truth: If the poem is written in a language whose words you recognize and understand, then what you get from the poem is what you get, and your reading is the right one. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
How does that tie in to stories written in prose mode, specifically short and long fiction? Well, if the reader is unable to get into the story, it isn’t the reader’s fault. It isn’t because the reader’s too stupid to understand, and it isn’t because of reader taste. It’s because the writer failed to pull the reader into the story.
Think about it. It’s human nature to wonder what happens next. We actually want to suspend our sense of disbelief. Given the choice, readers would rather be entertained than be finagled into working as a critic. But being drawn into a story doesn’t happen automatically. The reader has to care about the character(s) and be engaged with the setting.
And again, that’s where the writer comes in. If the writer doesn’t cause us to care about the character(s) and doesn’t let us see, hear, smell, taste and feel the setting, that won’t happen.
So the bottom line: If we as writers spot why we aren’t drawn into a story, it’s because we know something about the craft. But if the author had drawn us into the story in the first place, we wouldn’t have noticed. We would be enjoying the story.
Talk with you again later.
See “What Makes a Story Feel Like a Story?” at https://www.janefriedman.com/what-makes-a-story-feel-like-a-story/.
See “Life’s Work: An Interview with Jerry Seinfeld” at https://hbr.org/2017/01/lifes-work-jerry-seinfeld.
See “Run Your Own Race” at https://ava.substack.com/p/run-your-own-race.
The Journal…………………………………… 1100 words
Writing of WCGN 5: (tentative title, novel)
Day 1…… 2786 words. Total words to date…… 2786
Day 2…… 2536 words. Total words to date…… 5322
Day 3…… 1205 words. Total words to date…… 6527
Day 4…… XXXX words. Total words to date…… XXXXX
Total fiction words for December……… 10865
Total fiction words for the year………… 636749
Total nonfiction words for December… 9330
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 28470
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 837489
Calendar Year 2021 Novels to Date…………………… 13
Calendar Year 2021 Novellas to Date……………… 1
Calendar Year 2021 Short Stories to Date… 3
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 66
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 217
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31
Disclaimer: In this blog, I provide advice on writing fiction. I advocate a technique called Writing Into the Dark. To be crystal clear, WITD is not “the only way” to write, nor will I ever say it is. However, as I am the only writer who advocates WITD both publicly and regularly, I will continue to do so, among myriad other topics.
2 thoughts on “The Journal: Reader Taste?”
I understand your point, and to a large extent I agree. However (which you knew was coming, right? – grin), I think you and Dean are at opposite ends of a spectrum, and I fall somewhere in the middle.
As a reader, there are certain types of stories or story elements that I just *don’t like*, and therefore generally don’t start reading them: horror, for example, or anti-heroes.
Because I don’t start reading stories with those elements, there’s no chance for the writer to pull me into the story. If I should happen to start reading one, I’m far more likely to stop reading it as soon as I recognize an element that’s not to my taste.
If the writing should be spectacular enough to get me to finish it (I think the last time that happened was a Stephen King novel, maybe *The Dead Zone*, back when I was in college), then my reaction is, “That was very well written, but not to my taste.” (The same way I looked at my niece’s 70s-retro guest room and said, “Beautifully decorated, but not to my taste.”)
My point is that assuming the writer has mastered craft well enough to pull a reluctant reader in, there’s *still* an element of reader taste – or preference, if you will – involved in whether the reader likes the story or not. If the reader doesn’t like it, it’s fair to say, “It’s not to my taste,” just as it’s fair to say, “It had great concepts (or whatever), but the writing wasn’t enough to pull me in.”
In short, I think both you and Dean gloss over the, “It’s well done, but I don’t like it” reaction, which is a perfectly valid one.
Actually, I agree with you, Peggy, and thanks for taking time to comment. I almost added a segment to my post regarding reader taste going to genre, but I figured the post was getting too long already.
Folks who don’t like a particular genre going-in generally won’t bother reading stories by an author of that genre. That’s reader taste, pure and simple. I don’t care for fantasy, for example (other than JRR Tolkein’s works) or for slash-and-gash horror or bosom-heaving romance, so I don’t bother reading those. I know I wouldn’t give the author the chance to pull me into the story because I believe I know what to expect and I don’t like it. So to me, genre most definitely is a matter of reader taste.
On the types of stories I do enjoy, I go into those just wanting to be entertained. I want to give the author a chance, especially if its an author whose work I haven’t read before. However, if after a few pages I still couldn’t begin to care less about the character(s) or what’s going to happen in the story—if I’m not invested in a story that I expected to enjoy—that’s down to the writer. If the writer pulls me into the story, I’ll hang around to see what happens next. If not, I won’t.
There are only so many stories in the world. The writer’s job is to interest the reader in that writer’s version of the story.
Can a reader finish a story and then say “Well that was interesting (or well done, etc.) but I didn’t really care for it?” Of course. But that presupposes that the writer drew the reader into the story in the first place and didn’t allow for an early exit.
For me that’s like watching a film all the way through because it’s just that engrossing, but at the end saying, “Well, that was good, but I wouldn’t watch it again.”
On another matter, I’m glad you like King. IMHO, he is the only Stage 5 writer working today. I constantly find myself rereading one passage or another to find out exactly what he did to snatch my breath away like that.
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