Sunday, September 21, 2008

In praise of readers

Ah, readers. Writers cannot get along with them, especially ones like me -- non-literary authors who depend on those who buy our books to keep both our bank accounts and our egoes healthy. We have to be nice to our audiences, else they'll judge our books by our irascibility, not our talents. (Literary types are allowed to be eccentric, but not us popular scribblers.)

That's why I'll always answer a personal letter, or email, sent to me about one of my books. They're almost always pleasant letters, even when someone points out a glaring mistake I've made. Twice professors of pathology have wrapped a sharp correction about corpses in a blanket of praise about the rest of the novel. I appreciated these professionals taking my work -- and my feelings -- seriously enough to write and set me straight so that I wouldn't make the same error again.

Sometimes -- not often -- a stranger will ask if she (it's never a he) can meet for a cup of coffee and talk about a book she liked and to get a personal autograph. It's not always easy to know how to respond. Sometimes people believe that because they paid twenty-five bucks for one of your books they own a piece of you and you therefore owe them face time. These folks can be unbalanced, and that is why best-selling writers protect themselves by meeting their publics only at autographings and library functions and the like.

I am not a best-seller, however. My public is small, so each reader of mine is important to me. And so I'll set aside my innate shyness for a personal meeting if the initial communication suggests the reader isn't cuckoo. Twice last summer I met with such visitors at the Writer's Lair, and each of those meetings was pleasant. (One of the readers brought cookies, which always will disarm any lingering suspicions.)

All these people seem to believe enough in their opinions to set them down on paper, or in the form of email. They are willing to go on record, and so I am willing to respond on record as well.

It's the readers who won't do this -- and they are endemic at social functions -- that give me fits. They're the ones who zero in on you and once they have got you alone they lean into your face and say without a pretense at softening-up preamble, "I've got a couple of complaints about your book." It's at those moments that I'll make a quick excuse and depart the vicinity or, if I'm truly trapped, I'll say, "Sorry, I prefer not to talk about that."

These folks may mean well, but they are so insensitive that they fail to to understand that our books are like our children. We have done our best to raise them, they are out in the world, and if they have gone wrong there is nothing we can do about it now.

"I don't shit on your kids," I want to say, "and don't you shit on mine."

I was once a professional reviewer, a critic who praised what he saw as good and condemned what he saw as bad. But I did so in print, which gives critiqued writers the opportunity to react in print as well. There's something about setting thoughts to text that levels the playing field and results in the equal competition of ideas.

Busybody buttonholing of an author at a social function, however, does not. And that's why you hear so many stories about writers throwing drinks in somebody's face.

Let's have a toast to the Cubs instead.


  1. Hypersensitive, aren't you?

  2. Of course. Most writers are.

    Now, what would you like to drink?

  3. Are you going to serve that drink on a tray or hurled from a glass?

  4. I'll be a nice guy and take the ice cubes out first.

  5. ^_^

    I actually like it when somebody criticizes my work - as long as it's constructive. It shows they care.

    My drink of choice would be coffee though :p