Are we reading the same book?

Posted on 03 May 2013

This morning, as I rushed out the door to head to work, a long-lost memory from a high school English class popped into my head. We’d been tasked with writing short stories, which we then passed around to several other students to review. When I received a story from a classmate I’ll call Jim, I saw that my friend “Ben” had already read and reviewed the story.

I knew Ben fairly well, and this was the most worked up I’d ever seen him over a piece of fiction. His comments were scrawled across the last page of the story in big, excited handwriting: “WOW! This story has EVERYTHING! Great plot, great writing, don’t change a thing!!!” It was, by far, the most effusive commentary I’d seen on anyone’s story that day.

Jim’s story surrounded a war in which the soldiers were embarking on a bloody, graphic battle scene. I thought it was well written, but otherwise, it didn’t float my boat. It just wasn’t my thing. But Ben’s very enthusiastic comments reminded me that every reader is different. Some people are going to connect with your story, while others simply will not. Some people might fall in love with it, others might feel so-so about it, and others might despise it.

I thought of this again later today, when I decided to scan through some of the reviews for a book on my Nook. Here’s a sampling of the one-sentence subject lines visible on my screen:

  • Great, sly book!
  • This is an excellent novel.
  • I couldn’t get past page 37.
  • A luminously written novel.
  • Are we reading the same book?
  • The worst of the worst.
  • A struggle to get through!
  • Wow…tedious.
  • Captures an age.
  • I won’t finish it.
  • Absorbing and elegantly written.
  • A complete waste of time.
  • Awful.
  • Yawn. I want those hours of my life back!
  • Pompous and over punctuated.
  • Insightful and illuminating.
  • Boring and disappointing.
  • Brilliant!
  • Have a dictionary handy!
  • A charmer.
  • A literary failure.

So there you have it — some readers call the book “a literary failure” while others insist it’s “insightful and illuminating.” I know it’s nothing we don’t already know, that people have different tastes, but it’s helpful to keep it in mind, especially when those tastes can flavor so much of our writing lives. I feel like I’ve seen it all in writing groups, and I know how ugly it can sometimes get. If, for example, you workshop a few novel chapters and a critique member keeps attacking your family drama while insisting “there should be more violence,” you’ll be less tempted to throttle your book (and/or that critique group member) if you understand this person is not your target audience.

In other words: No, we aren’t all reading the same book.

Are you having a pompous and over-punctuated day, or an absorbing and elegantly written day?

Photo: katherine.a



4 responses to Are we reading the same book?

  • Sarah W says:

    I’m having an illegible scrawled grocery list of a day. But maybe that only means I’m not the target audience? :)

  • Averil says:

    There are four males in my house right now, two of them whooping at their video game. I’ve taken cover in my room, where I can shift my commas in relative peace.

  • Paul Lamb says:

    I often go through this same thing in my book discussion group. I give serious attention to the given novel as I read it, but by the end of our discussion I see so much that I missed and I wonder if I’d even read the correct book

  • Catherine says:

    Great post with lots of food for thought. I saw this with reviews for DLC. One woman was practically sneering, while others clearly enjoyed it.

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