Sunday, July 24, 2011

What the Reader Brings

**There are some spoilers for The Sexoricst (minor) and A Cop & A Feel (slightly less minor) below. Consider yourself warned.**

Yesterday, between my first exposure to Bones episodes (I'm not yet addicted but I am intrigued) and conversations in which my friends tried to convince me I should write a Superhero story about "The Amazing Math-o, fighting Inequality everywhere and battling his arch-nemesis, The Empty Set" (not a bad idea, really), I spared a few moments for ruminating on what a reader brings to a book.

You see, not so long ago someone asked me why I ended The Sexorcist with Brittany catching the bouquet. Did I have some hangup where it had to be all marriage-marriage-marriage to be a Happily-Ever-After? I replied that the book actually ends before the bouquet lands. Brittany just believes she will catch it, and apparently this reader did too. So was it my hang-up or the reader's? It's implied, but unstated. And catching a bouquet isn't exactly a contract in blood that marriage will follow. I caught my first one when I was about eleven years old, standing right next to my sister at my aunt's wedding. My sister, who has been married for over a decade while I remain happily single, is bouquetless to this day. So bouquets? Not infallible. I thought of the toss as ending the book with promise and possibility, it was the reader's mind that made it a contract.

Jasper Fforde talks about the dimension a reader brings to a book in his Eyre Affaire series (brilliant and highly recommended!!). He says something along the lines of (wildly paraphrasing here) the bulk of the book lives in a reader's imagination. The reader does most of the work. The author gives you the word "room" and a few descriptors. Your imagination fills in the walls and makes it real. Cool, huh? But the flip side of that is that as readers we bring the biases of our own lives to the book too.

I got Giggled this week. Mrs. Giggles, infamous purveyor of romance review snark, reviewed A Cop & A Feel. In the past, she's been a fan of the Karmic Consultants, but this one didn't float her boat, earning a 59 (out of 100, my worst score yet!) and the tagline "It's rather disturbing how a story this short manages to drive home so many times the mule-headed ineptness of the supposedly capable and intuitive cop hero." Oh dear, I don't think she cared for it, do you? But what intrigued me about the review, which my friendly Google Alert was kind enough to send me, was what it revealed about the reviewer's personal reading preferences and biases.

Take this line here: "The romance barely figures because there is no courtship here, just a mate ex machina plot device that expects me to accept that these two are just meant to be. They just are!" If you've read more than one of Mrs. Giggles's reviews, you learn quickly that she is rather violently opposed to any romance where a fated-to-be couple figures into the plot in any way.

But what's funny to me is that this is a story about a girl who can see the future. This isn't about whether they are meant to be, it's about whether they will be. Ronna meets Matt, sees a vision of a future with Matt, decides she wants that future and spends the rest of the book chasing after him to make sure she gets it. There is no mating. No Hand of Fate shoving two incompatible people together and forcing them to sex it up until they love one another. Just a hint from a future-glimpse that this guy could make the heroine really, really happy and the heroine trying to hang onto that future.

And here's the kicker, we don't know that Matt and Ronna are definitely forever gonna end up together. That, like so much of any book, is left to the reader's imagination. It ends when Ronna and Matt agree to go on their first date. There is no courtship because this story is an event, a moment in time. A Meet Cute with a Murder Plot.

But Mrs. Giggles saw nothing romantic in that twist of fate. She had a very negative reaction to Serengeti Heat for a similar reason. Oddly, I've never thought of my characters as being devoid of choice when it comes to their love-lives, but Mrs. Giggles sees that in my books (or at least in S.Heat and A Cop & A Feel). And you can't really say that she's wrong. Because the reader is so much a part of the experience, when she reads those books the "mate ex machina" is in there - whether it's there when you read it or not. Do you see what I mean?

I recently read When Beauty Tamed the Beast by Eloisa James (and I'm still collecting my thoughts about it). I wondered if the knowledge I brought to the book, being familiar with the TV show House, drastically changed my reading experience. It's impossible to ever know, but the book I read isn't really exactly the same book someone who's never seen House read, is it?

I'm intrigued by this whole concept.

The reader's bias is a powerful thing, boys and girls. A very powerful thing.


Vivant said...

Thought-provoking...and you get bonus points for bringing Jasper Fforde into the discussion! In my personal intellectual entertainment park his books are some of my very favorite thrill rides.

Vivant said...

I forgot to comment on The Amazing Math-o, fighting inequality everywhere. I love that concept, but suggest that perhaps his arch-nemesis should be the Null Set.