Not an Odalisque

Dear Reader

with one comment

I’m taking a break from Myths About Sex for a while. Not because there aren’t many more myths to tackle, but because I think it is getting a bit tired. I promise you one about racial stereotyping at some point. In the meantime, we’ll talk of other things.

As you know, I write stories and poems. I even have the first fifteen thousand words of a novel, which I am slowly butchering for short story material, making it ultimately unusable. Writers, as you know, are inherently vain, arrogant individuals, nursing a belief that the world has some interest in what they have to say. Thus I check my blog stats with alarming frequency, ask the opinion of anyone who mentions glancing at it, and thrust my stories into the unwilling hands of potential readers. Yes, I’m exaggerating, but I do seek the opinions of others in the hope of improving my writing. It is finding suitable readers which proves to be the problem.

I can detect bad writing in any genre, but not necessarily good. While the rules of grammar apply equally to lesbian gothic and instruction manuals, the rules of plotting, pace, structure and characterisation do not. We do not expect our instruction manuals to gain speed and intensity or deal with themes of seeming and the unheimlich. If you give me your instruction manual to critique, my input will probably be quite limited.

This must be the experience of all readers. When, say, a detective fiction reader comes across one of my pieces on Writewords (where writers can critique each others’ work), he must feel ill-equipped to comment on certain aspects of it, just as I often refrain from commenting on work which, if I found it when flicking through a volume in a shop, would cause me to return the book to the shelf. Sometimes I share my uninformed thoughts nonetheless. Presumably others do the same. To use this as an excuse to dismiss criticism is dangerous, however. After all, the definition of unpublishable is surely that everyone who glances at it in a bookshop would put it back down.

So how do you distinguish the useful criticisms from the less useful ones? The first reader of one of my short stories completely missed its point because she didn’t pick up on the previous marriages of one of my characters. I amended it. The second reader commented that I didn’t have to hammer the marriages home. Who should I listen to? Another short story provoked strong words on Writewords. It features a rape scene narrated from the point of view of the rapist. Most readers find the victim of the rape perplexing: why isn’t she more suspicious of the rapist beforehand?; does she implicitly invite rape?; why doesn’t she resist more? One person went so far as to say it read like a titillating account of pseudo sexual violence, rather than a realistic account. I had intended to write about the subtleties and complexities of rape, to come to some understanding of what motivates a person to that action and to consider the factors contributing to becoming a victim of it. Other people found in my words a view of rape they disapproved of, one which implied that victims are complicit in their own rape and sexual violence is fun. That is not what I intended to write, but once the text is finished, it floats free, independent of its author’s intentions, so that interpretation is as valid as mine. Oh, dear.

I want a better reader. My ideal reader would be quick enough to notice the references to previous marriages. My ideal reader would feel for my poor, violated character, rather than condemn her for not punching harder and screaming louder. My ideal reader would probably also have to announce their elevated status before voicing their criticisms, to avoid being dismissed along with the ignorant masses.

You wouldn’t be entirely wrong to argue that my writing skills are at fault if I can’t get my readers where I want them. If I were a better writer, this problem would be smaller. That isn’t the whole story, though. Everyone brings their own reading history, their personal history, experiences, beliefs and prejudices to any text. Every writer makes some assessment of who he is writing for, that’s why The Sun uses shorter words than The Guardian. And yet, how do I write for people unknown?

How am I ever going to know whose reading to trust? Would my ideal reader please stand up?

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Written by Not an Odalisque

February 11, 2010 at 11:05 pm

One Response

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  1. I took this class once with the most amazing professor. He picked up on every intertextuality and nuance in whatever he was reading. You need him. The way he enunciated…even if he was giving you the harshest critical analysis of your work. I think you can find him on facebook. There’s a group about him with his face in a crayon heart.

    marywhitney

    February 23, 2010 at 3:49 am


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