Art as a Mirror

Woman gazing into a mirror

Photo by Anna Yakimova, courtesy

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? 


About AndreaJWenger

Andrea J. Wenger is an award-winning writer and editor in Raleigh, North Carolina. She specializes in the fields of creative, technical, and freelance writing.

Posted on February 18, 2015, in Blog Posts. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Yes, book reviews are entertaining if nothing else. Nice analysis, Andrea.

  2. The only book reviews I read are for non-fiction books, because I want to get something specific from them. For my fiction, I go strictly by the cover and blurb…I love to take chances with the fiction I read. 🙂

  3. Sheila, I love that approach. Reviews have too many spoilers in them for me, anyway.

  4. I can’t think of any examples of a review that was way off the mark from my own thoughts, but I like that you point out how one’s interpretation of and support (or lack there of) for a book can entirely be based on personal experience.

    Great insights.

  5. Fascinating topic!

    I remember being shocked at how differently people reacted to one novel that I really enjoyed, Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s latest. A lot of the reasons stated had to do with the fact that the author wasn’t delivering what they’d come to expect, so they quit reading. I have to side with the Beatles, with Jennifer Crusie, and with Johnny Depp on this matter (talk about a disparate group, LOL!!): they’ve all said that artists need to feel free to evolve. The market likes to keep the artist-writer in a niche. It’s a balancing act–how to stay marketable and how to stay true to your muse.

    • Excellent point, Kieran. I think most successful artists understand that as they evolve, they may lose some fans but also gain new ones. The market is ever-changing. If you don’t grow, it may move on without you, despite the opinions of risk-averse industry professionals.

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