Art as a Mirror
When you read book reviews, it becomes obvious how widely varied people’s perceptions are of the same piece of literature. Differing tastes and interests are one reason. But on a deeper level, creative writing is the most subjective of art forms. It’s a collaborative process. Authors invite readers to use their imaginations to help tell the story.
Authors don’t have paints or charcoals. We don’t have trumpets or tambourines. We create sights, sounds and tastes through words, and rely on readers to fill in the gaps.
It’s an incredibly intimate relationship, which is one reason people lose themselves in books and feel like they know the author as a trusted friend. But in many ways, it’s an illusion.
Authors write about universal experiences, things we’ve all felt but were never able to put into words. They may capture an experience that makes you feel known for the first time, or that makes you feel as if you finally know yourself.
But authors write about specific and strange things, too. They write about experiences that push us out of our comfort zone. Fiction can be scary and disturbing. It can generate strong visceral reactions. We want to turn away in horror, but we keep reading because we simply must know what happens next.
Readers generally attribute the strong feelings they experience to the book, but in fact, those feelings are just as likely to be the product of the readers’ imaginations, to the associations and memories that the book conjures in their own minds. Even smart, careful readers can believe that something is in the text that isn’t actually there.
So I caution you, when you hear someone rage that a hero in a novel is abusive toward the heroine—and they know, because they were once in a relationship just like that—to question whether the rage comes from the text or from the reader’s own real-life experience. Or if the reader effuses over the rich descriptions of the Tuscan countryside, which reminded her so much of her trip to Italy last year, to wonder whether she was relying on her own memories more than what the author wrote.
No two readers ever read the same book. And we ourselves, when we reread a novel, will see things in it we never saw before. That’s the nature of literature. That’s also why it’s important for us to be tolerant of those whose experiences of a novel differ from our own. Even if their interpretation is demonstrably false based on the text, their experience was very real. They will never be talked out of it, so there’s no point in trying. Instead, appreciate what their reading of the story teaches us about humanity. Celebrate the richness of reading and the magic of books.
Have you ever read a book review that sounded like a completely different novel than what you read?