Writers aren’t like other readers

 (Not only am I annoyed by bad reviews of my own books, I’m also annoyed by nasty reviews of fine books by other authors.  When I saw a dismissive 2-star reader review of a thriller that I considered one of the best of the year, I got irritated on the other writer’s behalf.  I felt his book was horribly misjudged, and I was moved to write this blogpost about how we writers sometimes value certain books more highly than readers do.  I’m happy to say that my own opinion of the book has been supported by other authors.  That book is now a finalist for Best Thriller of the Year.)

Frequently I’ll cruise over to Amazon.com to see what readers are saying about books by other authors.  And often I’ll be startled by negative comments about books that I’ve enjoyed or even adored, books that I consider so well written that I can’t imagine anyone not loving them.  And I’ll wonder, what’s wrong with these readers?  Why don’t they appreciate the skill and talent that went into creating Author XYZ’s masterpiece?

I think the answer is this: we writers notice what the average reader completely misses.  We understand the enormous effort that goes into creating a special character and brilliant dialogue and a complex story.  We know how difficult the process is, and we know that what seems like effortless storytelling is often the most accomplished and difficult writing of all.

When writers are asked which of their books is their favorite, they will often name a title that their readers failed to appreciate, a title that perhaps sold poorly.  That book may have been the most challenging, the most artistic of all the writer’s works, the one book that he’ll be proudest of.  Yet the majority of his readers won’t recognize the achievement… because they themselves aren’t writers.

I remember a scene in the film “Amadeus”, when a nobleman (not a composer) offers his critique of Mozart’s brilliant new opera.  He says something like, “Very nice.  But perhaps a few too many notes.”

“Which notes do you mean?” Mozart asks.

“Oh, I don’t know.  But there are just a few too many of them.”

Everyone listens to music.  Everyone thinks they know good music from bad music.  Yet that scene of a clueless non-musician telling a musician how to compose an opera got a big laugh out of the audience because everyone recognized its absurdity. 

Whenever I see a nasty comment directed at a book that I know in my writer’s soul is a great book,  I think of that scene between Mozart and the nobleman.  Everybody’s a critic.  But very few of us can actually compose an opera — or write a book.


 I’m off to the UK!  No blogging for the next two weeks.  More when I get back…

2 replies
  1. ec
    ec says:

    Uh, lewis, you might want to re-read TG’s post and the comments that followed, because you’re mixing them up. TS did NOT use the “pearls before swine” analogy: one of her READERS did.

    This is one of the hazards of keeping an author blog: some people insist on holding the author responsible for every nuance on every comment people post.

    I did not get the “pearls before swine” impression at ALL from the post. Here’s what I read: People who know the ins and outs of a particular art/craft from experience are going to see the end product differently. And I agree.

    When an Olypic figure skater leaps off the ice and spins three times before touching down perfectly, I can appreciate the skill and beauty, but unlike another skater, I don’t know how much hard work and technique it takes to get to that point. My appreciation is genuine, but it comes from a different point of reference.

    As a writer, I was blown away by how skillfully and seamlessly TG handled the time shifts in THE BONE GARDEN, because multiple time frames is one of the most difficult techniques to master. She makes it look so easy that someone who hasn’t studied the craft will only see the smoothing flowing narrative. That’s not to say that an intelligent, thoughtful reader can’t appreciate the story. They just come at it from a different perspective.

    Back to figure skaters. I suspect that there might be some moves that are impressive to watch but fairly easy to pull off, and others that are much more difficult but not all that flashy. That’s why writers might appreciate some books that aren’t quite as popular with readers. When you’ve struggled with a difficult technique, you tend to recognize and appreciate it in a way that someone who hasn’t cannot.

    That said, I don’t think someone has to be able to reproduce something to appreciate it. Non-skaters are fully capable of observing, “Huh. That gal wearing blue sparkles fell on her ass. Not good.” I don’t play the violin, but I can damn well tell when someone’s intonation is off. Likewise, you don’t have to be a writer to recognize a well-written book from one that’s poorly constructed. And I think most artists, musicians, and writers know this. You seldom see a writer responding to critics with a challenge to go out and do better themselves; it’s the writer’s fans who tend toward comments of this nature.

    Please PLEASE don’t confuse the two. It’s very easy to do, because the words are similar, but what’s actually being said is quite different.

    I think it’s telling–and deliberate–that TG used the example of “Amadeus” to illustrate this point. When the Archduke Ferdinand dismissed “Abduction from the Seraglio” as having “too many notes,” he was giving a personal opinion. The play/movie bent over backward to depict this guy as a tonedeaf lightweight, and show that his opinion was NOT widely held. Mozart was extremely popular in his day and his music remains in high regard–not just with musicians, but with a wide audience. The play/movie makes that point over and over. It wasn’t a case of “the smart people liked Mozart, the unwashed masses couldn’t possibly appreciate his music.” To the contrary. But Antonio Salieri, himself a composer, understood the artistry of Mozart’s music on a different level. “Don Giovanni” might have closed after five performances–it’s one of Mozart’s most difficult operas and not exactly a fun evening out–but Salieri went to every performance.

    Musicians listen to music differently, writers read books differently, artists look at a painting and understand things that non-artists might not get, doctors observing an operation are more likely to appreciate the difficulty of the procedure and the skill of the surgeon than a layperson. This is not a difficult concept for me to get my hands around, and I don’t see any insult in it.

  2. Tess
    Tess says:

    Note from Tess: Lewis pointed out that the comments section about this entry got pretty heated, so I have deleted them all, except for the one written by Elaine Cunningham, which I thought was so well-thought-out and beautifully written about the subject.

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