A Matter of Perception

Writers love getting their books reviewed. You hear that all the time, and it’s true. We do. But every once in a while, a review comes along that makes me wonder if I’ve stepped into the Twilight Zone. Or if the reader has. Those reviews inevitably reference something – it could be a person, place or a plot point – that never happened in the book I wrote. And yet there are always just enough references to make it clear that the reviewer read my book and wants to share their views. Unfortunately they seem to be viewing things through their very own, highly polished, fun house mirror.

I thought this particular treat was reserved just for me. Apparently not.

Elizabeth Gilbert writes about this in her latest book Big Magic. In her case, a reader approached her at a book signing for Eat, Pray, Love and thanked Gilbert for writing about a restraining order she’d put on her ex-husband because she’d had enough of his violence. The reader went on to say that Gilbert’s words had given her the courage to leave her abusive marriage. Those words, however, were never written. In fact, Gilbert says you can’t even read that narrative between the lines of her memoir because it’s so far from the truth.

Rather than being shocked/angry/frustrated/amused (pick one), Gilbert was philosophical. She decided the woman had every right to misread her book. “Once my book entered her hands,” Gilbert says, “everything about it belonged to her, and never again to me.”

I’ve always known that not everyone will like the novels I write. I also understand that while 100 readers might find one of my characters strong and sympathetic, 100 others may see her as wimpy or harsh or critical or simply rotten. It’s all a matter of perspective. I get that, objectively. But it can be brutally hard to maintain objectivity when a reader reads something into my book that I never put there in the first place. Especially if they don’t like what they think they read. It can be crazy-making.

My cousin is a visual artist. Some of her paintings are abstracts. They’re open to interpretation. People see whatever they see. That’s the nature, and the joy, of her work. But my books, at least the ones I’ve published so far, are reality-based. There’s only so much interpretation possible. They’re like flower beds – w hat you see is what you get. At least, that’s what I used to believe.

Now Gilbert’s perspective has me re-thinking. Maybe I should embrace whatever readers find (or think they find) in my words. Hand each book off and let the readers own it. After all, Elizabeth Gilbert says their reactions don’t belong to me. My only job is to create . . . create . . . and create some more.

And that’s more than enough for me to handle.