Hubris Meets The Critics

October 12th, 2004 · 1 Comment
by Booksquare

How good, how experienced a writer do you need to be before you are able to judge your work with a casual reader’s dispassion? Do you, the author, have such incredible skill and judgment that you can say, absolutely, that every word, every sentence, every plot line is exactly right?

The New York Times takes a look at Anne Rice’s, well, misjudgment when it came to responding to negative reviews on Amazon. Here’s a hint: if readers don’t like your work, that’s an opinion. Our analysis is that Rice missed the mark on this book. We do not believe that most readers purchase a book, invest time in reading it, and then more time writing reviews do so because they enjoy trashing authors. Surely there are other, more efficient methods of doing this. If a reader has a negative reaction, and some did regarding the plot and construction of Blood Canticle, it makes more sense for the author to take a step back and be honest about the work.

A trend we find increasingly uncomfortable is articulated by Rice:

“I have no intention of allowing any editor ever to distort, cut or otherwise mutilate sentences that I have edited and re-edited, and organized and polished myself,” she wrote. “I fought a great battle to achieve a status where I did not have to put up with editors making demands on me.”

In a telephone interview, Ms. Rice elaborated on the point.

“People who find fault and problems with my books tend to say, ‘She needs an editor,'” Ms. Rice said. “When a person writes with such care and goes over and over a manuscript and wants every word to be perfect, it’s very frustrating.”

Wow. Seriously, wow. Distorted. Mutilated. She must have had some really bad editors in her day. As authors grow in fan base, the editorial process slips away. The other day we spoke about prolific authors: there seems to be more focus on pushing product out the door than creating quality. The author creates the work, but the publisher has a responsibility to itself to ensure the quality of the book. Even the most careful, thoughtful, precise author requires editorial oversight. The reaction to Blood Canticle shows why: reader expectations sometimes clash with authorial ego.

Readers (a lot of them — numbers likely increased by publicity, though there are quite a few older reviews) had issues with the book. It didn’t fulfill expectations, they felt characterization was off, they felt the plot didn’t hold up, and, because this was ostensibly the last book in a series, some felt they didn’t get closure — in this, perhaps, Rice failed to fulfill her (unwritten) contract with her readers. Rice sees all of the named flaws differently. It wasn’t missteps by the author; it was the fault of the readers who didn’t get it.

If so many readers missed the boat, maybe the message wasn’t as clear on the page as it was in Rice’s vision. She defends changes in her character by pointing to previous works; readers still say they don’t see it. First, what if this were the first book picked up by a new reader? Second, it’s possible to miss the mark. And never forget the risk of recurring characters: readers don’t really want them to change too much. If they do, explain, motivate, write clearly.

And don’t assume you’re above an editor. We know this is hard work. We know what goes into writing and rewriting and rewriting and polishing. We know what it feels like to think we’ve hit the mark, only to discover we weren’t using the right weapon. An editor is a tool available to authors — find a good one (surely a major publisher such as Knopf has a few talented editors on staff).

We know nothing will change in this regard. Too many forces are fighting against the idea that editors serve a purpose. But when you refuse to be edited and your fans feel your work suffers for it, you have to look inside and accept the value of the expressed opinion. You don’t have to agree, but you have to accept responsibilty. It’s yours alone.

File Under: Square Pegs · Tools and Craft

1 response so far ↓

  • Lorra // Oct 12, 2004 at 2:20 pm

    Admittedly, I read mostly thrillers since they seldom require that I develop a decent vocabulary. Recently, I tried plowing through Catherine Coulter’s “Blind Side” believing a “New York Times Bestseller” had to have merit.
    This book is proof that publishing lots and lots of books doesn’t necessarily make you a writer. The thing was a pile of illiterate garbage — so bad, I almost picked up a work of literary fiction. Yipes!