close reading

Ethan, once more

Recently I’ve had quite a few emails with questions about the Wilderness series. They are maybe four or five questions that keep coming up, so I’m posting this first, to provide some general insight into this phenomenon, and second, to point people to answers.

Here’s my philosophy about questions arising from a novel: if the author has to tell you, she didn’t do her job very well, OR, you need to think about the questions some more on your own. Because for every question you can ask, there are many answers. Every reader takes away a different reading, and it’s not for me to agree or disagree. So for example, many people have written to me asking about Ethan and the ‘secret’ that brought him home to Paradise and then motivated his proposal to Callie.

It’s not really a secret. All the clues are there, but for me to tell you would be forcing a reading on you that should be your own. I know what I meant, but you are free to read the story, read the clues, and come up with an answer of your own. This is the kind of question that makes a good book club discussion point.

Now, do people sometimes get the wrong end of the stick? Yes. If somebody tells me that Ethan was clearly abducted by aliens and suffering post-traumatic stress, I would say: huh. Really not what I was going for. I might go so far as to say that that person did not read very closely. But that’s as far as I’ll go.

Having said that, there’s an older post that does go into more detail, and you’ll find it here.

Finally, here’s my general explanation of things: authorial confessions.


Galileo v Darwin

a new day
The Mathematician handed me an article from the Scientific American, and then stood back and watched me guffaw. The article in question was a discussion of the relative impact that Galileo and Darwin had on society. Which one was bigger?

First, it’s a dopey question, but on top of that, this little bit of silliness: one of the panelists claimed that Galileo was the most influential, because (and I’m paraphrasing) only fifty percent of Americans believe in evolution, whereas eighty percent believe the earth orbits around the sun.

Think about that for a minute.

Now, the Darwin thing I’m willing to let go, though I don’t believe it. A much smaller proportion of the population identifes as creationists, but let’s leave that aside for the moment.

The claim is that 20% of the American population does not believe that the earth orbits the sun.

I don’t believe this. I just don’t. I’m taken by this urge to stop people on the street and ask them a T/F question: does the earth orbit around the sun? I can predict that some small percentage will just look puzzled and have to think about it. These are the same people who can’t put France on a map (much less Iraq), and who don’t realize that the fact that there was a World War II, there must have been a Word War I. Or this person, quoted on Overheard:

Like, New York’s Technically a State Of Mind, Right?

College student with Boston accent: Yeah, I was reading this article in like Newsweek or something, that ranked the states from smartest to dumbest. Massachusetts was in the top ten.
College student with Miami accent: What about Florida?
College student with Boston accent: Florida was like, 47.
College student with Miami accent: Out of how many?


Overheard by: Still Laughing

Some people just aren’t interested in the wider world. Maybe the student with the Miami accent knows everything there is to know about sailboat rigging, but slept through every geography and social studies class. The temptation is to laugh (okay, I did laugh), but I think it’s a mistake to assume this person is intellectually a zero. Narrow, yes. But more than that, who knows?

The earth orbiting around the sun is to me so absolutely undebatable that I put it on a par with things like, the sun rises in the east or the earth is round. Further, some people may deny they believe in evolution for religious reasons, but no such baggage has been attached to Galileo. I hope.

Does that 80% sound weird to you?


Creative Commons License photo credit: cdemo

talking about reading

Sandi at Fresh Fiction has posted about what it’s like for her to give up on a novel she’s reading. She feels compelled to finish, no matter how bad the match. This reminds me of the fact that I still feel guilty for reading all morning. I read and write for a living, but it was drummed into me as a kid that I READ TOO MUCH, and I can’t shake it. Even though I do, sometimes, read all morning.

As far as starting a book that doesn’t work for me, here’s my routine: I put the book-that-isn’t-working into one of three piles:

Pile 1: The problem has to do with me. It’s where I am at this moment, emotionally or in terms of work. I can see that I might like or even love this novel at a different time — or at least, that I might learn something — but that day is not today. I put the book on the “try again later” pile. On second reading, this novel may be recategorized as Pile 2 material.

Pile 2: The story is sound, but the  subject matter is inherently not a good match. Example: A few years ago there was a historical novel, the title of which I am blocking out. It had to do at least in part with the development of hypodermic syringes. It doesn’t matter if it is best book ever written, I can’t read it. It goes into the “probably worthwhile but I can’t for personal reasons” pile. I don’t read religiously-themed, cautionary novels (what are those romances called again?) for the same reason. There are most likely many such novels that are very well written and plotted, but I am not the right reader for them.

Piles 3a and 3b: There are two kinds of unreadable novels, in my view of things. One is so horrifically poorly put together that I keep reading it in the same way I would keep watching a propane truck skidding at high speed  into  backed-up traffic on the other side of the highway. I think of it as the awful-book trance. I could name three such novels without trying, but I won’t because (1) there’s nothing to be gained by hurting anybody’s feelings  and (2) there’s a lot to be lost by offending them. Offending another writer just for the thrill of it is a useless and counterproductive thing to do. It damages my  self-respect, but there’s  also the possibility that I will be launching  a wild-fire-type internet war. Some people thrive on the chaos of battle. Some people are almost pathologically  provocative and offensive (think: Ann Coulter). That doesn’t work for me. This is not to say that I never get involved in such battles; just that I avoid them if at all possible.

And finally there’s the book that I cannot find any value in, not even in the abstract.  Pile 3b contains  the ones I donate to the library, because it is possible that somebody else will find value in them. Hard to imagine, but possible.

Pile 3a is an interesting category, because any author lives on both sides of it. If I come across a novel that is really, really bad, I will not write about it here unless there is something to be learned, and I can do it in a way that it is at least somewhat objective.  I can only remember one review I’ve written of a novel that stunk, and it took me a long time to decide to write it, and a long time to get the tone right.  People who don’t write for a living but who talk about books online don’t have the same inhibitions, which is to be expected and even welcome. How else does an author get honest feedback?

Google sends me an email when somebody posts something about one of my books. I usually go have a look, and this is where I find out where other people rank my stuff.  It might be something fantastic — just recently a major author mentioned on her discussion board that she was loving Pajama Girls, for example. This is not somebody I have met or corresponded with, so it was very gratifying, because I respect that person’s work and opinion. On the other extreme, this is one paragraph in a longer post (dated June 2008) from a young woman who graduated from college a few years ago, and who is active in the theater. She did not like — really did not like — Pajama Girls. My Pajama Girls fall into her category 3b:

There are several troubling elements in this modern Southern romance. The handful of African American characters are treated like caricatures from a minstrel show. Agnostics are referred to as heathens. And “Yankees,” in general, are objects of scorn and suspicion. Local churches stage haunted houses about the dangers of birth control. Grown women are referred to as “girls.” This portrayal of the South may or may not be realistic, but it will likely inspire more irritation than amusement in feminist readers.

And that’s not the worst of it, but honest feedback means just that, and it’s sometimes pretty brutal. So what did I do?

Nothing. The author is entitled to her reading.  I may find the way she expresses herself strident and her interpretation offensive, but she’s within her rights.  It seems to me that she has not read very closely, but that’s not a discussion I can have with her. Any response from me would be seen as bellicose or self-serving or worse still, bullying.  So I didn’t respond, and I haven’t put a link here, because the idea is not to have anybody else respond, either.

I do wonder if she wrote her review thinking that I would see it, or assuming I would not. I’m not sure what either of those would mean.  For my own part, I try to remember that I shouldn’t write anything on the internet that I wouldn’t be comfortable repeating to somebody’s face. This doesn’t mean I can’t be honest in a review about a book I don’t like, but it does make me think about my tone and approach.  Which is why I keep this little reminder  on a sticky note on my computer: You can no more take something off the internet than you can take pee out of a swimming pool. (Attribution unknown)

fictional manfiction

Stephen King has an article over at with the provocative title “Who says real men don’t read?”

It’s no surprise that somebody of King’s stature gets gigs like this. He takes an hour or so, writes a column, hits a button and off it goes to EW. Then he  trots off to the bank with a check. And I’ll bet it’s not chump change, either.

I don’t begrudge King anything, you should understand. It sounds like writers’ heaven: Anything he cares to write, he can sell. After a while it must be tempting to test that hypothesis.  A quick  idea pops into your head, bang out five hundred words and voila, it shows up in print.  Maybe  it’s  the most concise, insightful little gem on the appeal of writing mysteries, or it could be some nutty piece of misleading fluff about chicklit v manfiction.

As is the case here, where King might have  decided on this particular column like this:

Hey, why don’t I set up some false dichotomies about fiction and readers, and then once I’ve created enough confusion and chaos, I can plug my favorite books.

I happen to agree with him that Lee Child has a really great series going with his Jack Reacher novels. I do not agree that this is manfiction. Women like stories like this. Women especially like Reacher. Conversely, not all women like Nora Roberts.  Some women (and some men) might like both, or neither.