In today’s post, author and neuroscientist Livia Blackburne puts it all in perspective.
I’ve noticed a pattern in the blog posts of debut authors. Before the book comes out, there’s a flurry of activity about prelaunch preparations. Then there’s a celebration on launch day and a big promotional push. And finally, after things have quieted down there’s a philosophical post about bad reviews. This is mine.
I released my novella Poison Dance last September and have been
obsessively stalking goodreads, googling myself once an hour, attentively monitoring early reader response. A good review is a lovely thing to wake up to, but I’ve also been pleasantly surprised to find that bad reviews — while not exactly enjoyable to read — don’t bother me as my as I thought they would. I think this is due to my background as a psychologist and neuroscientist. When you look at stories through a psychologist’s point of view, bad reviews no longer seem as scary. Let me explain.
In his book The Language Instinct, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker describes language as a way to shape thoughts in someone else’s brain. As authors, when we package our words into a novel, we’re taking a story formed in our heads and transmitting them in a nice package for other people to experience.
Pretty cool huh? Like mental telepathy without the foil hats. But it’s imperfect mental telepathy. To understand why, let’s take a closer look at the storytelling process.
The Author’s Idea:
A story starts in the author’s imagination. It isn’t made of bare facts, but draws on the author’s life experience. Whether it’s an epic love story or an nail-biting thriller, the story is informed by everything from the writer’s worldview to her favorite hobbies.
From the Author’s Brain to the Page:
Once the story is there, the author puts the words to page. Again, the combination and style of the words used depends on the author’s individual understanding of language. Everything from the phrasing employed to the details mentioned are the author’s unique signature.
Sentence level decoding:
After the book is written, it enters the hands of the reader. And here, it passes through another set of filters. Just as everybody produces language differently, everybody understands language differently. This means that different readers will find different voices compelling. One reader might pay more attention to short distinct sentences, while another might bask in lush descriptive prose.
Image level meaning:
By now the reader has decoded the sentences, which tells her the bare bones of what happened — a ball bounces on the pavement, a man punches a security guard. But does it matter that the ball bounces, and should we be shocked that the man punched the guard? What if it had been a nun who did the punching? Events and images must again be interpreted, and this relies very much on the reader. For example, take a romance in which a man takes a woman’s hand. A reader who is very sensitive to physical touch might interpret this as a strong display of affection, while a more touchy-feely reader might not think this is a big deal at all and be completely surprised when the man declares his undying love a few chapters later.
After the broad events of the story is conveyed, there remains the larger message. What did the story mean? Was it happy or sad? Just or unjust? Again the story’s meaning is colored by a reader’s worldview. One reader’s Cinderella ending might be another reader’s objectification of women.
As you can see, the act of writing and reading a novel isn’t a simple straightforward thing. It’s more like an elaborate game of telephone involving the writer, the reader, and their various language processing modules. At every single step of the process, the story passes through filters that depend on the person, and this is how 10 different readers can wind up with 10 very different impressions of the story.
This not a bad thing. It’s part of the beauty of art.
But it does mean that if you write a book about a glass that’s half full, you might just get:
Reader 1: What a wonderful tale about a half empty glass.
Reader 2: Meh, a mediocre tale about a half full glass.
Reader 3: That’s a funny looking flowerpot…
And because no blog post would be complete without graphs, let’s include some as a visual aid. As an author, it’s sometimes easy to think of a book’s quality as something like this.
The y axis represents a book’s quality, and the error bars represent subjective differences in opinion.
But instead, it might be better to think of story enjoyment like this.
Here, the Z axis represents how much someone enjoys a book, and the X and Y axes represent reader characteristics, anything from their favorite genre, their attention span, their worldview, the number of traumatic childhood experiences they’ve had involving killer pigeons, etc. All come into play when they read a story.
What do you think? How do you feel about bad reviews? Please leave a comment below.
If you’d like a more in depth look at the reading process, my essay From Words to Brain: A Guided Tour Through the Neuroscience of Reading, is currently on sale for 99 cents until February 17, 2014. (Regular price $2.99).
Livia Blackburne started writing her debut novel MIDNIGHT THIEF while conducting research on the neuroscience of reading at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Since then, she’s switched to full time writing, which also involves getting into peoples’ heads but without the help of a three tesla MRI scanner. She still blogs about the intersection of psychology, neuroscience, and writing at A Brain Scientist’s Take on Writing.