Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Good Reader

Sandra Parshall

Somebody on DorothyL asked a few days ago, “What makes a good reader?” As in, we know what readers expect from writers (perfection!), but what do we expect – or at least wish for – from readers?

I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in my contacts with readers. I love hearing from them. I’ve received many e-mails and in-person comments that were so wonderful and gratifying that they kept me going for weeks afterward. I’ve suffered only indirect blows from those who think the very existence of my books is an affront to everything they hold dear. My portrait of The Good Reader is drawn from the experiences of other writers as well as my own.

The Good Reader pays attention to what she’s reading and does not complain to the writer about nonexistent errors or omissions.

The Good Reader lets an author know that she has read and enjoyed the writer’s book(s).

The Good Reader doesn’t rush to ruin an author’s day/week/year with a long e-mail or online “review” detailing every reason large and small why she hated the writer’s new book.

The Good Reader realizes that few authors make much money, that most of us do this because we love to write, that a single book represents a year or more of intense creative work, and it’s disheartening, to say the least, when a reader makes it her personal mission to go around the internet urging everybody, everywhere, to shun it. The Good Reader realizes that his or her taste may not be shared by all readers.

While The Good Reader is certainly entitled to express an opinion, she doesn’t use online reviews to instruct a professional author on how to improve his or her writing in future books. That’s an editor’s job.

(Note: Many professional writers make it a point to avoid looking at reader reviews on sites like Amazon.)

The Good Reader realizes that the characters in a book are not stand-ins for the author who created them. If a character does something awful or expresses an unfortunate opinion, that doesn’t mean the writer behaves or thinks that way.

The Good Reader may voice a wish for the future direction of a series character’s life – as in, “I’d love to see her marry Tom” – but doesn’t become aggressive about it (as in, “If they don’t get married soon, I’m going to stop reading your books”).

The Good Reader realizes that an author with a traditional print publisher probably has no control over the release of an e-book version of her novel. The Good Reader doesn’t ask about the e-book repeatedly, then when it’s available, decide not to buy it after all.

The Good Reader doesn’t ask an author published by a small press why her books aren’t all prominently displayed at the local Barnes & Noble.

The Good Reader doesn’t tell an author that she looks nothing like her picture on the book jacket.

I’m sure any writer who’s reading this could add to the list. Feel free.


caryn said...

Interesting column. I'm wondering about one of the points though-the one about readers wanting (or not) something to happen with a character. While you welcome comments, but don't want readers to be insistent, wouldn't you want to know if something about a character or character's relationship is driving readers away? I'm not referring to anything in your books with this, but I can think of two different series where based on comments from readers on both DorothyL and a couple of yahoo groups, readers were so frustrated with a sitiuation that went on and on in book after book that they stopped reading the series.

Sheila Connolly said...

A good reader doesn't say, "oh, I bet I could write a book if I had the time. When I do, you'll send it to your agent/editor, right?"

I'm always amused when a reader asks, "when are X and Y going to get together?" because that's exactly what I want them to wonder (assuming I have the luxury of an ongoing series, never a sure thing).

Sandra Parshall said...

Caryn, I understand what you're saying. I've stopped reading some series because of situations or behavior that I found irritating, but I didn't tell the writers. In a case like that, I'm not sure that telling the author would accomplish anything, because obviously it *is* working for him or her.

I remember the uproar when Dana Stabenow killed off a beloved character. Lots of people swore they would never read her books again. But I have a feeling most of them did come back after a time. When a fictional character readers love dies, I think a lot of them need a period of mourning, however strange that might seem. The writer has to do what she thinks is best for the series, though.

Diane said...

Sheila, if one of your readers COULD write, they would make the time, no matter how long it took them. That's just an excuse.

And Sandra, I'm with you re if an ongoing situation/character irritates me, I just move on. I don't want someone to change what they are creating just to please me. I'm only one reader among many. My likes/dislikes/tastes are mine, and not something I should impose on others. Though, from what Caryn said, maybe a polite note to the author re the ongoing situation/character if something about it is bothersome or irritating to me. Just so they have a heads up what is possibly going on if readership is dropping. I imagine polite feedback might help. Emphasis on 'polite', not ongoing, ranting or just plain insulting.

Peggy Webb a.k.a. Anna Michaels said...

Great post, Sandy! It's helpful, too.

My favorite readers are those who say, "I love this book. What else have you written?" and then come to my next autoghraph party with a shopping bag full of my novels for me to sign!

I also enjoy hearing that readers can't wait to know whether Callie and Jack will get back together, or Lovie (the cousin) and Elvis (the basset hound) will find true love. That's great feedback for a writer doing a series. It lets me know I'm on the right track.

Well, shoot! I'm easy. I just love hearing from readers, period!

Again, Sandy, thanks for initiating an intelligent conversation between writer and reader.

Sandra Parshall said...

I love hearing from readers too, Peggy, and enjoy knowing they wonder about the characters' futures. I have to write the stories the way *I* think they should be written, though. I'm happy to say that most of the readers I hear from respect that.

What's interesting to me is that so many of the things readers want would actually remove tension and conflict from a series. Without tension and conflict, you don't have a story worth reading. You can type "And they lived happily ever after" and stop writing.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. I'm sure authors can be "annoyed" by all sorts of things their readers say or do, but A Good Author should realize that every reader that reads their book(s) is a Good Reader and should be appreciated.

Sandra Parshall said...

I'm sure we all appreciate our readers -- I certainly do. But we are human too, and we can be hurt by intentionally cruel comments.

At Malice Domestic I asked three bestselling writers whether they look at reader reviews on Amazon and elsewhere online. They said no -- it's "too much of a downer" to read dashed-off comments that often contain errors and are sometimes very negative and personal. The negativity can eat away at a writer's peace of mind and interfere with current writing.

Jeri Westerson said...

I just want MORE readers! :)

Sandra Parshall said...

Wouldn't we all? :-)

pehsdk said...

I wonder what effect reviews, good and bad, have on a book?

As a reader, I love all the reviews out there written by "real" people. Before I buy a book I read the reviews posted on Amazon & Goodreads, etc. I generally average out the reviews and then decide to buy or not. I would assume these reviews are more for the potential readers/buyers then the author.

Sandra Parshall said...

But some of those reader comments can be abusive rather than informative. Go to the Amazon page for BURN by Nevada Barr and read the starred Publishers Weekly review, then the avalanche of negative reader comments. Yes, the readers have a right to express their opinions, but ask yourself, as I do, how you would react to that kind of "feedback" on something you've spent a long time writing and care deeply about. I hope Ms. Barr is the kind of writer who never reads those reviews. (For the record, I didn't enjoy that book the way I've enjoyed her others, but I wouldn't take it upon myself to tell a writer of her stature what to write and how to write it.)

pehsdk said...

I did go read reviews of Burn on Amazon and Goodreads. I have not read anything by Nevada Barr so I did a sampling like I do when considering a book, (I may have to add her to my tbr list) but anyway what I take away from the reviews is that the series may have started more in the cozy mystery genre and the last few books may have moved more into the darker suspense genre.

I actually read both genres but know a lot of cozy readers who will not cross that line, they read cozies for a reason. I didn't see reviews attacking the writing, I saw reviews upset with the subject matter.

I would think that Ms. Barr should understand who her reader is and understand that in crossing that darker suspenseful line she may upset and lose some of them. It is perfectly her right and decision to do so as is it's the reader's right to be upset about it if they don't like it and review the book with emotion.

I much prefer reading a review written with emotion from a reader who loved or hated a book, then some canned review.

That's just how I feel.

Thanks for the discussion! :)

Dru said...

I love books and I love to read. If I don't like a book, I would never bash an author or their work because I do know how long they worked on that book. Just because I didn't like it, doesn't mean it wasn't good.

Cheryl said...

The more I write the more I appreciate the sweat and blood that goes into a crackin' good book. I'm a forgiving reader, but selective in spending my few reading hours with characters I enjoy.

Sandra Parshall said...

If I don't like a book, I stop reading and find something I'll like more. I don't feel any urge to tell the writer I didn't enjoy her work (and why), nor any urge to prevent others from reading it. I don't get into arguments with people about whether a book is "good" or "bad". I'm just one person with my own taste. I know that many other readers will love what I don't enjoy. If I love a book, I will recommend it enthusiastically to people whose taste is similar to mine.

pehsdk said...

Couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to go and listen to Debbie Macomber, part of her talk was quoting from letters she had received from readers, one in particular was along the lines of: Ms. Macomber I have not found one redeeming quality in the last 10 books of yours I've read. Debbie laughed and said, "Well, keep reading them, maybe one of them will surprise you."

Is the author writing for good reviews or to sell books? Is it better to have a starred review from Publishers Weekly or whoever and 10 five star, great reviews from readers and no negative ones or to be like Stephanie Meyer's Twilight which on Goodreads has 55,705 one star negative reviews from readers? I bet she's crying about those negative reviews all the way to the bank.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Great discussion. But I think it’s perfectly legit for a reader to ask a writer why her books aren’t available at a particular store. Readers don’t know the industry the way writers do, and they’re asking in order to learn, not to insult us (most of the time, anyway!).

When a reader says “Oh, I wish they would get together,” or whatever, she’s telling you she likes the romantic tensions you’ve created – not that she wants the tension or conflict removed. Good writer realizes that sometimes otherwise good readers say stupid things because they’re human, and because they may not know how to express themselves in matters literary.

call center philippines said...

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Kaj Genell said...

A good reader is one who knows if he or she should continue reading after having read 2 pages.
There are too many books not worth spending time on.

Character (good) and taste (good ) is knowing when enough is enough.