I’m starting to hear back from my second round of “beta readers” for 17 Weddings — people who have volunteered to read an unedited manuscript and provide feedback about my story. I am infinitely appreciative of their time and effort — and their honesty.
While talking to another author recently, I said that “every reader is right” — words that stemmed from a quote I read at a library during my BC Book Tour last summer:
“No two persons ever read the same book.” – Edmund Wilson
That quote had struck me, reminding me of the contrasting feedback I’d received from the first two beta readers for my debut novel, Goodnight Sunshine. My conversations with those two readers went something like this:
Reader 1: I loved the first half of the book, but you lost me a bit when your protagonist went to Ecuador. As for characters, I really liked the people on Vashon Island … and I couldn’t stand Jen.
Reader 2: It took me a while to warm up to the part on Vashon Island, but once your protagonist went to Ecuador I was hooked. As for characters, I found Jen especially compelling.
By the time I received feedback from eight other Goodnight Sunshine beta readers, I began to see patterns and recognize areas that I needed to eliminate, change or expand. But I also realized that the story I had written was going to reach every reader in a different way. At first, I saw that as a challenge to be solved — a question to be answered: how could I satisfy everyone and ensure that MY intentions — the messages and feelings I had worked so hard to convey — would transfer into my readers’ minds?
Slowly, I have come to embrace the diversity of readers’ perspectives as a positive, and to recognize that I can only control the words I write, not the way someone reads them. I’ve come to appreciate that the beauty of art is in its interpretation. And I’ve learned that my role as an author is not to paint a clear and unambiguous picture; it is to paint real and complex characters and a storyline that compels readers to think … to question … to wonder … to doubt.
So far, five people have read pre-release versions of 17 Weddings. Patterns are beginning to emerge, but the richness of the feedback is rooted in contrast and diversity. I am fascinated by the individuality of each response, and appreciative of each person’s honesty and thoughtfulness.
Every reader’s perspective is shaped by a unique lifetime of experiences and observations. Each reader possesses his or her own blend of wisdom, likes and dislikes, fears, anxieties, triggers. What is heartwarming or funny to one person might be infuriating or despicable to another. In short, each reader’s perspective is as unique as their fingerprints or their DNA. So how could two people read the same book in the same way? They can’t.
Acknowledging this truth has been my single greatest epiphany as an author. Recognizing that every reader is right — that each person’s perspective is as valid as any other’s — is a liberating force. Knowing that I cannot reach everyone in the way I intend to allows me to write freely, to detach myself from outcomes and focus on the joy of writing. This also helps me to hear feedback about my stories without taking it personally, looking for patterns and themes in the feedback rather than trying to “solve” every criticism or suggestion.
But enough about what I think. What do you think? I’d love to hear from you … honestly and thoughtfully.
* Image provided under Creative Commons License by LPHR Group.
2 thoughts on “The Reader is Always Right”
These are good observations, Mark. If the author is aware of such diversities in his readers the readers should feel freer to express their honest thoughts to the author. I guess that is why so many people enjoy joining book clubs in which they can express their thoughts on a book while expanding their depth of understanding of the author’s intent in his or her writing!
And such great observations about my observations, too! Thanks for your comment!