I have a book I’d trunked, which I decided to dust off after a lead. Of everything I’ve written, it’s the thing I’m most nervous about showing people.
There are good books about good people making good decisions. I don’t write those books. If I am writing a character, unless they are a very peripheral character, it is an anti-endorsement for their behavior. And often, I write about abuse, a tricky subject to get right. I worry less about my ability to write it than I worry what other people will do with it.
This book features an unreliable narrator getting sucked into a cult and simultaneously into coercive relationship she percieves as romantic. I’m not really into telling you how to feel about things in a book, but a big clue about my attitude to the relationship: it’s the central conflict in a horror story and the source of most of the horror. Do I trust readers to take a hint (by which I mean, look at the genre and the actual text of the book)?
There’s something to this book. The people who love this book love it. They seem to get it. I’ve yet to have anyone hate it (not that people who do will tell you before it’s published!), but I have been to the Internet. I know the kind of analysis that is on it.
My concern is that really bad analysis of a text tends to quickly become unmoored from the text or anything in the real world. It says a text is harmful, but fails to articulate what harm is being done or how. It then starts to generalize this harm to the character of the author— far from treating the author as dead, they resurrect his corpse to put on trial like an Anti-Pope.
For an example, please see Sarah Dessen and several other bestselling authors starting a Two Minutes Hate at a student over a quote she gave to a newspaper. While the target was a student and not at an author, it was over the book community’s (writers and fans’) interpretation of a text. And I saw a lot of the same deflection used when the book community talks about books. “She put something out there, we can criticize it.”
The quality of the criticism was itself awful. They quickly jumped from inferring things not said to inferring malice to tying this lazy, unsupported interpretation to larger cultural issues like #metoo and misogyny. And I see leaps just as large, just as unsupported, all the time. The only reason this is different is that the book community made the error of targeting someone outside of it, and the outside world noticed. In the light of day, outside of the discourse particular to the online book community, this was self-evidently an intellectually vacuous and dysfunctional method of engaging with a text.
It’s not great when applied to books, either. It makes people less able to interpret a book. The way books are related to activism on larger social issues makes people worse at activism. For example, there were a lot of articles in 2016 about how young activists learned their activism from Harry Potter. That was factually unsupported. I believe it incorrect, and misleading about what effective activism even is.
There is the option to simply ignore poorly written criticism of one’s work. In fact, it’s a duty to ignore it! But the hope is always to say something to people who understand. You hope to make a conversation, if not better, then not worse.
I guess I am saying I am so dissatisfied with the quality of book discussion for other people’s books, I am a little worried about how responsible it is to release a book on a tricky subject. Will I bungle a sensitive topic? I’ll spend a few years and employ people to avoid that, and we’ll see. Will the book community take that kind of care when discussing the topics in the book?