What Do People Think of You When Reading Your Book?

What Do People Think of You When Reading Your Book?

In her wonderful book 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley, commented that “readers don’t care what the author thinks.” She meant, of course, that readers don’t want the author to intrude himself and his own beliefs upon the story. Indeed, isn’t one of the cardinal rules of fiction that the author must never make the reader aware of his presence?

In a word: hogwash!

At first glance, I suppose, it may seem I’m sticking my neck out to the ax. After all, who among us can flout the ironclad wisdom of novel writing and escape unscathed? But I guess I’m not flouting the conventions so much as I am attempting to momentarily redefine them.

Authors Are Never Inconspicuous, So Take Advantage of It

The simple fact is that it is impossible for an author to remain inconspicuous. From the moment readers glance at the names, in capital letters, on the book covers and select their reading material accordingly, they have no chance of pretending this author person doesn’t exist. With every word they read—no matter how different the worlds and lives they describe may be from that of the author himself—the readers are coming to a more intimate understanding of the person who wrote them. To say that the author must remain invisible is a ridiculous concept. The author is—and, indeed, must be—at the very center of his story.

As much as stories are about things that never happened and people who have never lived, they are also the tale of people who do live—people who have thought and felt and experienced life deeply enough to bring meaning to make-believe that would otherwise be meaningless. In short, readers had certainly better care about what the author thinks, because otherwise what point is there in reading the thousands of words that have flowed from this person’s mind and onto the page?

Why the Author’s Brain Is So Fascinating

Is it even possible to read Dickens or O’Brian or L’Engle and not be fascinated by, not only the veneer of the story itself, but also the workings of the minds that hide behind the beautifully crafted false fronts?

So many times when I’ve read something that has deeply impressed me—with its wit; with its depth of feeling; with its brilliant, unswerving verity—I’ve looked up from the page to wonder, What kind of a mind discovered this nugget? What events in the author’s life produced this thought? What personal convictions inspired him to write this?

These inevitable intrusions of the author’s mind upon my own are far from unwelcome. If I care enough to pick up one of Dickens’s 800-page tomes or to read through twenty volumes of O’Brian, of course I must not only recognize the considerable personal force of these authors lurking behind their words, but I must also appreciate and be interested in the authors themselves.

Readers Want to Think You’re Awesome! Don’t Blow It

When I pick up a book, I want to experience the author’s mores and mindset. I want to learn from his own experiences as a human being, as viewed through his characters. I want to meet this person and—if all goes well—close the back cover on his book having made a new and respected friend for life. The characters become my friends, certainly—but is that any reason to overshadow the author himself?

Now, in fairness to Smiley—and the legions of writing pundits who remind authors they need to keep themselves out of their writing and completely clear of their readers’ consciousness—I am quite certain her intention in making this statement was directed to the problem of didactism and overbearing authorial flourishes. And, in that, I completely agree with her. To be beautiful, art must be subtle. But does that mean that when I stand in awe in front of a Da Vinci, I am not utterly aware of the artist himself?

In short, as authors, we cannot be afraid of releasing ourselves into our stories. Indeed, our stories are us. (Gustave Flaubert said, “Madame Bovary c’est moi.”) Whoever has read your book has met you. Whether they like you or your writing is entirely their own prerogative, but for better or worse their reading your book means your life has impacted theirs. And that is something all readers care about.

Tell me your opinion: What is something readers might wonder about you while reading your book?

What Do People Think of You When Reading Your Book?

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. The Thirteenth Tale was full of writerly nuggets. I actually came very close to quoting from it in this post.

    And, yes, October is coming up *very* fast! My deadline for Dreamers has been pushed back; now I’m hoping to have it finished by November.

  2. Your post reminds me of what we read in The Thirteenth Tale. Diane Setterfield wrote: “For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. their humor, their tone of voice, their moods.”

    Francine Rivers sounds no more like Tom Clancy than I do. The writer can’t help but to intrude in his/her books!

    And, speaking of books, October is coming up fast. Dare I hope????

  3. Linda Yezak says

    November. Okay, I’ll wait.

    Sigh.

  4. Wow. You’re still alive. CW misses you too.

    Art cannot be passive. A piece that just sits there and looks nice and perfectly agreeable to all passersby will never have the effect of a piece that challenges people’s beliefs, cuts to the bone of truth, and raises passionate debate. Just look at the Bible, wot?

  5. Meant to comment when this was first posted, but things have been busy.

    Just a quick observation regarding a conclusion I’ve come to: usually when writers (or readers) say “I don’t care what the author thinks”, what they mean is “I don’t care what the author thinks – if I happen to disagree with them.”

    Writers who have nothing to say with their stories other than their stories usually bore me and disinterest me quickly. Some of my favourite writers not only put their own thoughts and observations about existence all over their works, but they often posit notions I vehemently disagree with! But because of the quality of what they’ve written, I forego my own judgments, and admire their story and their craft for what it is.

    Few people look at Michelangelo’s Pietá and think, “Honestly, he could keep this whole ‘Christ and Mary’ business to himself!” Writers, similarly, if they are to make a work worth noting, should not be afraid to let their own thoughts be evident.

    Sorry for the rant. I miss CW.com. Bloody work firewall…

  6. I think the characters are small domains of someones mind. And they can tell a lot about the one who wrote them. And I like your saying that you ponder upon “what had made the writer think and write it?”
    And don’t worry, I am also of the same breed of readers.

  7. Aften Brook Szymanski says

    When I read a premise and then read the book I’m always surprised how differently the author approaches a topic than I would. I love that. I love seeing things through a different perspective.
    But, the thing that hit me most from this post? The reader wants to think you’re awesome, don’t blow it!
    AH!
    I’ve always been on the dork side of super-rad. I like to think I’d slide right into the Aquabats without missing a beat if one of their band/cast members had to take a leave of absence (minus the musical ability).
    I’m banking on the premise that my readers think a full awkward embrace of dorkdom is awesome.

    • A good story is really a creation of both writer and reader. It’s a contract, and both parties have to hold up their ends of the deal. The reader *has* to go into the book wanting to enjoy it, wanting to be impressed. If he enters with an attitude of cynicism, it’s not going to work no matter how good a job the author did. But, by the same token, the author then has a responsibility not to betray the reader’s trust. And you know what good old Uncle Ben says about power and responsibility…

  8. thomas h cullen says

    Thanks for sharing this Katie – the most exciting one you have so far!

    And you’re right, to the core. The essence, of fiction and art is subjectivity. (Hence why it’s impossible for a consumer of either to just even significantly divide them from their creator).

    Art’s a subjective and interpretative representation of reality – it’s the person whose the filterer, taking from their objective reality what it is they do and don’t wish to represent.

    That was a genuinely impressive post Katie; because of how correct you were, I was hooked at the outset.

    Here’s me crediting you for it (almost six years later).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Glad you enjoyed it! The really interesting aspect is that both writer and reader are ultimately filtering the story, and it’s only when their filters match up (for the most part) that the story works for the reader.

      • thomas h cullen says

        Which they invariably more or less should – on the condition that the storyteller has enough competence.

        Provided the art in question is of the type, it’s essential that it’s maker knows it truly inside out.

        Katie, it isn’t that you write a great post – it’s that you consistently do so!

  9. They’ll wonder if I’m a depressed, dark, and violent person. Actually I’m a teddy bear who likes the middle ages.

  10. Oh boy.
    Possibly how I manage to write death so well. Possibly where did the names come from. I’m really not sure, but here’s to hoping my books will have depth enough to induce these questions.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, exactly- questions are a good thing! As long as they’re not, “What’s going on here?” :p We want to spark reader curiosity.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Most writers try to keep from being preachy in their works, but something of us leaks into all of our writing. K.M. Weiland examines what readers think of you when they read your books. […]

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