Thoughts on Reader Commentaries

Like many authors, I do read at least some of the posts and commentaries about my work, not so much for ego-surfing, because one nasty comment wounds more than a score of positive ones heal, but to see what some of the reactions [if any] to what I wrote are. After many years, there are certain patterns which have become obvious.

First, a number of readers believe that whatever my protagonists say and do is what I believe. So do I believe in pre-emptive action [as do Jimjoy Wright, Nathaniel Firstborne Whaler, and Gerswin], in semi-preemptive action [ala Lerris, Lorn, Trystin, or Van Albert], or reaction in massive force [Ecktor deJanes, Anna, or Secca]?

Because different protagonists react in different fashions, I find that this occasionally engenders one of two reactions from readers. The first reaction is that I am being inconsistent. The second reaction, which is far more common, is when the reader fixates on a particular type of hero or behavior and ignores all the others. For example, many readers believe that I only write coming of age stories about young heroes, But even in the Recluce Saga, of the fourteen books published [or about to be published], exactly half deal with “coming-of-age.” None of the Spellsong Cycle novels use that approach, and only one of the Corean Chronicles is really a coming-of-age tale. Almost none of my science fiction novels deal with “coming of age” themes. By these figures, less than twenty percent of my work is true “coming of age” work.

Then there is the charge that I write the “same” book, over and over. To this charge, I plead “partly guilty,” in that there are common sub-themes in every book I write: the hero or heroine learns something and accomplishes something and there’s some form of romantic interest. I’m not terribly interested in writing books where the protagonist learns nothing and/or accomplishes nothing. In practice, a protagonist either learns or doesn’t learn, accomplishes something or doesn’t. Now, in the James Bond books, and in many of the endless series with the same cast of characters, a great deal of action takes place, but when it’s all over, what exactly has happened? Isn’t the norm that one set of disposable characters has been killed or jailed, or been made love to and discarded, only to be replaced by another set for the next episode? Has the real structure of the world or the political system changed — or has the scenery just been replaced, so to speak, and made ready for another series of adrenaline-filled [or lust-filled or whatever-filled] adventures?

Nor am I interested in writing nihilistic or “black” fiction. Years ago, in my closest approach to the dark side, I did write one classical tragedy in three volumes, and sales of the third volume plummeted. Interestingly enough, now that The Forever Hero has been reprinted in a single fat trade paperback, it has continued to sell modestly… but reader reaction has been more than a little mixed. Even so, I seldom write books with unabashedly “everything is well” endings. Most of what I write has what I’d call “bittersweet” endings, those where the protagonists achieve their goals, but end up paying more, if not far more, than they dreamed possible. I’ve also discovered that, because I often don’t make that explicit, a number of readers don’t always catch the darkness veiled within the ending.

In a larger sense, however, ALL writers write the same books over and over. As Heinlein pointed out over 35 years ago, there are only a handful of plots, presented in many guises, but limited in “formula,” if you will, to those basic plots.

Oh… and then there’s the reader reaction to the food. More than a few times, there have been questions and comments about why my books have so many scenes where the characters eat. With those comments and questions have come observations about the food, ranging from why it’s so simple in some books to why it’s so elaborate in others. Why the meal scenes? Because, especially in low-tech societies, meals are about the only opportunity for conversations and decisions involving more than two people. As for the fare served, I try to make it appropriate to the time and culture, as well as to the economic status of those at the table.

Finally, as exemplified by the reaction of some few readers to my comments and amplifications on why most readers don’t like or aren’t interested in F&SF, there are always those who believe that, by what I have written, I am attacking their most cherished beliefs, and that because I am, I’m clearly an idiot. By this standard, I suspect all of us are idiots to someone, and writers more so because writers who continue to be published have to say something, and something will always offend someone. My personal belief is that a writer who offends no one usually has little to offer.

Most professional writers do offend someone, and in that sense, you as readers can judge authors not only by their supporters and friends, but also by those who dislike them , although I would also suggest, based on experience, that most readers who dislike an author cannot be impartial in evaluating their dislike. Why? Because most writers published by major publishing houses produce an acceptable technical product [even if editors must proof and correct it in some cases], when someone claims they dislike a writer because his work is “badly written,” “excessively verbose,” “so spare you can’t follow the action,” “filled with cliches,” and the like, all too often this sort of criticism veils a deeper dislike within the reader, and one based more upon conflicting values than upon the writer’s technical deficiencies. Now, I am far from claiming that we as writers do not make technical mistakes or that we do not occasionally manifest such deficiencies, but any writer who has glaring technical deficiencies, as cited by some readers, will not get book after book published. In the end, most criticism reflects as much, if not more, about the critic as about the author.