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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Reading Comprehension

I read a lot of book reviews. Mostly, I read reviews of books I've read, usually to see if other people agreed with me, or not, and why. I've come to the conclusion that my reading experience is vastly different from most other readers', and that I can't trust majority opinion to choose my future reading material, with a few notable exceptions.

Photo by Petr Kratochvil
What really trips me up, though, is when a reviewer complains, "It never really explained __________," and I scratch my head, flip through for a minute, and say, "But it says right here, on page 253 . . ."

Granted, there is a difference between showing and telling, and it irks me when the characters' actions contradict their characterization. A supposedly strong female character without agency, a character described as decisive who waffles throughout the text, and a supposedly sexy alpha male who makes me want to join a nunnery are perfect justification for a book's joining The Wallbangers Club.

That's not what I'm talking about, though. I'm talking about reviewers who are just plain wrong, and demonstrably so. They complain a character never sticks up for herself, when she does in chapters 1, 3, 8, 12, and 31. They harp on the existence of magic, when the book is clearly set in an alternative universe. They demand of a writer when so-and-so is going to get a girlfriend, when she went on four dates in the most recent installment.

I'm not going to name names, and I'm most certainly not using real-life examples, because I'm not falling into the trap of responding to a review. I may not be a published author, but it's a bad idea, regardless, even if the reviewer is wrong. I'll offer supportive comments about "reading comprehension fail" to authors I like, but that's the closest I'll get to a public response. My usual reaction is to stop, reread to make sure I read the review correctly, then shake my head and move on.

Mostly, I store up these experiences for the possibility I run across reviews of my own work and feel the urge to respond. They're fodder for the eventual reminder I'll need, that not everyone is as sharp-eyed a reader as the wonderful people in my writing group. They're proof that the mythical reader I hold in my mind is more observant than the reader that exists in reality.

Nothing will make me dumb down what I'm writing. I want to appeal to the sharp-eyed, to have a following with high reading comprehension, to be appreciated by those who appreciate subtlety. But, I do still want to be understood.

And so, when I go through this mental exercise, running across a review that makes me stop and shake my head, I think about my own clarity. I needn't pound readers over the head with my points, but are they articulated somewhere within the text? Do I reinforce my characterizations with my characters' actions? Is my theme consistent, and clear from one chapter to the next?

I recognize that there's nothing I can do about a person's poor reading comprehension. Sometimes, people will misread things. But, so long as I know I've put my best writing out there, my work will defend itself just fine.