I recently read a Facebook post by an author I quite like about being told at a book club that her main character was “stupid.” She also noted that it is probably a good reason for not writing autobiographical fiction. There were a lot of supportive comments posted in response and some general good cheer sent her way.
Going to book clubs is, indeed, nerve-wracking on one level. That’s your baby they are examining. What if someone goes on and on about a “rape scene” in your book when you didn’t think you’d actually written a “rape scene?” (And I didn’t think I had, as a matter of fact.) Or if they despised the creepiness of a ”predatory child abuser” when you felt you’d laid out all the necessary bits to support a different view of that character? (And yes, I thought I’d done that pretty well.)
All this “reader opinion” can mess with an author’s self-confidence. (Ha! I hear many of my colleagues rolling their eyes and chortling aloud “WHAT self-confidence?)
But here is where an author needs to step back, take a breath and recognize what changes. Once you have okayed that final proof with the publisher, once the layout and design is complete and the presses are rolling, that baby that took so incredibly long to bring to life is no longer yours. Sure, those are your words, your plot, your characters — but they now belong to your readers.
The fact that readers dislike a character and call her or him “stupid” or “predatory” or any number of negative attributes is a great thing. It means the reader has engaged with your writing so much so that they form an opinion about the individuals you’ve created. There is no greater thrill for me at a book club than to hear members debate and discuss my characters’ motivations. Somehow my imagined world has become their imagined world, albeit from their perspective.
Reading is an individual event. Most of us recognize that when we open a book, we bring our life experience to the interpretation of the text. Our moral compass is part of that process. Our preferences for short snappy prose, or for lingering description-rich passages — all of that is part of reading. And enjoyment. Books are meant to engage, to entertain, to offer escapes. Often, they can teach us things about the world and about ourselves that we may not have recognized. But it is the engagement that matters most.
Visiting now with a dozen book clubs in Ottawa, Peterborough, Detroit, Courtice, Toronto, Whitby, Ajax, Oshawa and an international teleconference book club, it has been my great pleasure to hear what readers engaged with in the pages of Living Underground. I’ve been surprised, confused, lauded, taken to task, questioned and observed (there will always be one or two book club members who don’t say much. Do not assume they’ve not read the book; generally, they have and will ask the best questions privately.)
Readers are a writers’ gift. From them, you learn to look at your words in print in new and intriguing ways. Book club visits are a privilege. Embrace every member’s comments as inspiring gold for when you work on the next book. And your ego? It has no place in the book club’s space. Leave it at the door and you will take a worthwhile and important journey of discovery.