Understanding Readers?

As do at least some writers, I do have the very bad habit of reading reviews, even reader reviews. For years, other writers and editors have cautioned me against doing this very often, and yet… I still do. The good side of this is that I do understand what those readers want. That, unfortunately, is also the bad side.

I recently read a reader review of Adiamante, which has generally gotten overwhelmingly favorable reviews from both readers and critics, in which the reader, after saying that he had thoroughly enjoyed some 15 of my books, thoroughly lambasted me for writing what he suggested was a left-wing diatribe. He went on to write that, after reading this one book, he was sorry he’d bought the first fifteen.

While I wish I could say that I was surprised… I wasn’t. Saddened a bit, resigned, but scarcely surprised. Just as people vary in their tastes in food, music, in types of entertainment, readers also vary in what they enjoy. That shouldn’t surprise any writer.

What saddens me as a writer is not that a reader takes issue with what I write or how I write it. Since I do not write sexual scenes [with one exception more than twenty years ago] and I do not write graphic violence, most reader disagreements come from philosophical viewpoint differences. Even so, it’s still disturbing when I explore a different point of view or a fact or an issue that conflicts with that reader’s prejudices so violently that the reader must reject everything I have written or will write — even those books with which the reader would agree. This is the all-too-common human mindset of “If you are not 100% in agreement with me, then you are the devil’s spawn [or some other suitable epithet].”

To my way of thinking, reading provides an arena where readers can explore new or different ideas, where they can see how they might work out, or might not, and where they can look at what an author presents and either decide that the scenario, assumptions, and results are plausible — or that they’re not. It’s certainly a great deal less costly, both in terms of resources and in terms of human misery, to explore such possibilities on the printed page. Unfortunately, there are still those people whose minds are so closed that any exploration is regarded as an assault upon their dearly held prejudices… and I use the term prejudices here advisedly, because those who cannot even read or listen to another viewpoint [assuming it’s well-written, of course] in order to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses before accepting or rejecting it, are not thinking beings, but merely creatures of thoughtless bias.

Yet… as the percentage of adults who read for pleasure has decreased, so has the polarization of political and social viewpoints increased, to the point where tens of millions of Americans are unwilling to listen to contrary views, unwilling to accept social and political compromise, and unwilling to hammer out solutions that work for all Americans… and not just for them.

Is this a coincidence? I don’t think so, but I also don’t think that decreased reading has caused increased social and political polarization. Rather, my own suspicion is that a society that demands instant everything effectively stifles debate and discussion, not to mention thoughtful consideration… because thought… and reading… do, in fact, take time and reflection. Add to that the fact that our media and our politics are structured along the same lines… and even some evangelical religions are to some degree, where instantly “accepting Jesus” seems to count more than a lifetime of measured goodness, and it’s not difficult to see the various contributing factors to “values absolutism.”

And that’s how we writers get readers who like 93.75% of our work, but who will never read another book of ours because of something we put down in one single volume.