In Which I Am Probably Too Honest About Being A Writer.
Robert Jackson Bennett says some very wise words on what it’s like to read reviews of your own stories. I’d advise you to go read it (as I’d advise you to read RJB in general), but the first of his two gushing money shots is here:
The reading experience is 70% work done by the reader, not the writer, and when you bring your own perspective and state of mind to my stuff, you are by default changing it – giving it nuance, color, beauties, associations, problems, and conundrums I could never hope to. The human mind is a wonderfully, tantalizingly strange thing, and it is endlessly more complicated than any book could ever be. My job is to give you fuel, and get out of your way.
So I don’t want to be included in discussions of my work. Ideally, my opinion is moot, irrelevant. I cannot tell you if your opinion of me or what I wrote was wrong, even if I feel it obviously, obviously is: what you read is what you read, and I shouldn’t have any say in that.
People think writers have power, but ideally, I think it’s quite the opposite, or should be. We aren’t even part of the equation. What you read is infinitely more powerful than what I wrote.
This sums up one of my personal paradoxes in writing: I love the feedback. I love seeing how I put a story out into the world and what people think of it, good or bad. That’s why I’m absolutely ridiculous about e-Googling myself; I adore watching that mutation as the words I created become absorbed, get imported, and ultimately are regurgitated in an entirely different form.
People read my stories and tell me about my subtexts. I don’t do subtexts; I’m just not a subtexty sorta guy. But these people are subtext fiends, and so when they read it they stumble upon subtexts all over the place, and I – the guy who summoned these words from the heavens – watch them explain my blatant subtexual undertones and I go, well, hell, I guess that could work.
Some writers are irritated by this. I can’t look away. Even the hatred is fascinating, as they despised what I saw as strengths of my story. How crazy is that? I created it, and it’s not anything I control.
That’s the love.
And yet while I hunt down every review of my works, I don’t comment. Publishing something on Escape Pod is always a thrill, because the commentors there are active, numerous, and will rip your shit to shreds. They will debate you with the ferocity of a nerdy English class thrown into a pit of fire and told that the best paper on this short story wins. And yet despite these amazing analyses of my stories, I’ve never once popped in to weigh in because that’s not my place.
Why would I spoil your interpretation when you love it so much? Or love hating it so much?
It makes me uncomfortable, when people rave about my stories around me. I’m glad you liked it. Really glad. But I don’t know what to say, because while I’m glad I initiated this chemical reaction, the ultimate cause of the love is what you brought to it, and so I feel sort of like someone vigorously thanking me for this tree I planted thirty years ago. Yes, you spent your childhood playing in its branches, and your dad made you the most amazing tree fort, but all I did was toss a seed in the ground and water for a bit.
That love is you. I’m blatantly happy to be involved with it. I’ll even discuss techniques on watering, and what I tried to do, as that sort of nerdery is fascinating to me. But when you’re gushing, I don’t know what to say because “Yeah, I’m great” seems dickish and brushing that love off disrespects the passion you’re bringing to it, and “Thanks” seems inadequate and cold, so here I am simultaneously full-on thrilled and terribly, terribly embarrassed.
That may be the kind of writer that RJB and I are. That’s purely me, but hell, it’s there, and I’m not discouraging you from telling me you liked something, but I am saying that my responses in those cases inevitably seem curt and noncommittal to me – not because I’m not appreciative, but because saying too much might ruin the illusion you created.
My story is not me. It’s you.
I ain’t gonna ruin that.
The other money shot, which hit me so hard, was:
I want you to like my book because of what it was, not because of who I am. And if I thought readers were reading me only because they “knew” me or liked me, rather than because I wrote a good book, I’d probably be severely depressed.
He is correct, because I was severely depressed for a long time. For the first eight years of this blog, people mostly read the little fiction I could publish because I cajoled them into it, and they read my fiction with the obligation one feels when a friend thrusts a manuscript into your hand and says, “Read this, and lemme know what you think?”
(Hint: “Lemme know what you think” is near-invariably “Please tell me it’s good.”)
And people loved my blog-entries on my personal life, and my puns, and my insights into human nature, but I just could not translate that into readable fiction for almost a decade. I had to go to a writers’ intensive to show me why my fiction was fucking terrible (and how the many effective shortcuts you can take in a blog entry will destroy your fiction). And for all that time, I had people loving me but not the stories I wrote, and that was soul-eroding.
It was nice to be loved. But my fiction needs to stand on its own, and not be the kind of adjunct where hey, you really get off on Pete Townsend’s guitar playing, so you feel like you should read his poetry too. Just to be complete. And because, on some level, you know it’d make Pete happy.
(Assuming anything really makes Pete Townsend happy.)
My entire blogging career since 2006 has been, “Can Ferrett convert his blog-loving audience into fans of his fiction?” And that’s been a sloowwwwww process. I’ve been read by literally millions as a blogging personality, and thousands as a fiction writer. Even today, I’d say 80% of y’all think of me primarily as this blogger who writes fiction, and maybe 20% think of me as “a fiction writer who happens to blog copiously.” Which is what I hope to be. Whenever someone says, “Hey, I finally went to your short stories today and read a few and they were amazing,” that makes my day a total win.
The fact that I have fans of my fiction? Amazing.
Which is not to crap on your enjoyment of me. Obviously, I blog so you can come here and be entertained. There’s nothing wrong with you experiencing me primarily as Crazy Poly Blogger or whatever, because – as noted in the first part – watching people inhale my words and exhale all these different interpretations is part of why I write anything. I adore that, and again, I’m loathe to write this lest I pop your bubble of enjoyment. (See? It really is not fun when the author tells you what he wanted to do.)
Yet what I really crave is for people to see the mega-blogging as an adjunct to that body of amazing fiction – which it is. I spend maybe twenty minutes a day blogging. I spend hours writing fiction, which is much harder, and yet much less interactive. And my whole goal is to make you crave that fiction as much as you crave the next Pseudo-Wise Essay On Human Foibles, and have I done that?
I’ve done better at that. I still have a way to go. And if I fail in that, that is my failure and not yours, because heck, what I just said is that feeling like you’re guilting people into reading your stuff as some personal favor to you is the shittiest feeling imaginable for an honest creator. I want you to carry on a sloppy love affair with my fictional worlds, not my real me. And maybe you go over to click that short story link because you’ve read me long enough to grow curious, but in the end if you’re middling on what you read then I want you to embrace that “meh” and not feel some sort of obligation to cross-link the love of blogging-me with love of fiction-me.
Anything else is a sort of handout. I don’t want handouts. I want to earn it, and I’m comfortable saying I’ve earned your love or hate as a blogger because I’ve been doing this for thirteen years and my audience is narrow but devoted, and I want to earn your love of my stories the same way.
Which is a really weird place to be. I came up backwards. Most fiction writers have people fall in love with their fiction, then discover the person. I’m getting more of that as I progress down the Writers’ Career Path, but for me it’s mostly inverted where I’m a personality first and a writer of tales second, and that’s even odder than fiction in general is.
I’m working hard on a novel. If I ever get it published, I hope to fuck you like it. Not me; it.
We’ll see when that day comes.