Blame the Reader

It's easy enough to blame authors for writing books that you don't like, and it's easy enough to blame agents for selling them and editors for buying them and publishers for publishing them, but I want to initiate something that most people are afraid of in this consumerized world: Blaming the reader. I'll start with myself.

I am a failed reader of David Marusek's first novel, Counting Heads. I loved the first 50 or so pages, which seem to be the excellent story "We Were Out of Our Minds with Joy", if I remember correctly, but I don't have a copy of the story handy. In its second section, the book switches from first-person to third-person, and the viewpoint shifts from one character to another every few pages. As I read along, everything I liked, everything that had held my attention, everything that had been most fascinating to me about the book seemed to be disappearing. I went with it for a while, because this was a book I very much wanted to enjoy, but I began to resent having to read any more, and when that happens, I stop.

I could blame David Marusek for writing a book that didn't end up appealing to me, and I could blame David Hartwell for editing a book that didn't appeal to me, and on another day I might, but today I feel like blaming myself. David Moles liked the book, and Kelly Link recommended it to him. This is further evidence against me -- both are discerning, passionate readers, and I have benefitted from Kelly's recommendations a few times in the past.

In some ways, I don't think I'm a very good reader of pure science fiction anymore. This doesn't have anything to do with the old canard about "reading protocols", which tend to get trotted out by people who want to enforce their membership in a clan that has secret passwords and handshakes. If such protocols exist, I know them well, having learned to read by reading SF. No, this is about certain techniques of writing that I am not sympathetic to -- I can understand them, I can analyze them, I can decode better than your ordinary owner of a decoder ring. But such techniques make me indifferent and occasionally even hostile as a reader, while for other readers they are the stuff of wonder and addiction. I don't think either of us is better than the other, but the difference is interesting.

For instance, I didn't mind the neologisms in the first section of Counting Heads, and enjoyed the fun Marusek has imagining a deeply technologized future. The pacing of it all worked for me, and the first-person narrator was engaging enough to keep me interested in his fate. I couldn't get through the second section, though, because the shift to third-person and to multiple viewpoint characters eliminated the thread I had been interested in.

Contrast this to the sort of reader who is more interested in the speculation, the technology, and the twists and turns of a plot that for me became bogged down in discussions of political machinations that I was indifferent to. For a reader who had not attached to the first section's narrator as a character, but who had instead seen the character as a convenient vehicle for getting to the good stuff, the second section must be vastly more engaging than the first. I, meanwhile, was left trying to care about any of it, trying to find even one character whose actions interested me, trying to find concepts that seemed to benefit from being expressed as a narrative rather than a technical manual.

This reminds me of something a friend of mine -- a magnificent writer and very smart reader -- once said about Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, a book I adore and find more pleasurable with each read. She got halfway through and stopped. "The games were fun for a while, but then I just thought, 'It's all games, isn't it?' And I don't care about games." That wasn't Calvino's fault, that was hers. He'd written a book she couldn't possibly be sympathetic to, because very little of what he was trying to do was anything she wanted to pay attention to.

Attention is an important quality in a reader: What do we as readers want to pay attention to? So often the books that we fail are ones where the writer's attention is gazing in a different direction than we want to join.

This could lead to a slippery slope of gushy relativism, and I don't want to slide all the way down it. There are various levels of failed attention (see Nick Mamatas on "What is Bad Writing?"). David Marusek is a remarkably talented writer, one who pays careful attention to detail and nuance, to language, to -- well, you name it. It's an extraordinary book of its own sort, but it's unfortunately not the sort of book I get much pleasure from, and in this case, I think that's more my fault than anyone else's.


  1. I didn’t actually read CH as science fiction so much as a sort of satire, like Sewer, Gas, and Electric or Galapagos. Cf. Miriam Jones’ take on Oryx and Crake.

  2. Matt,

    I'm glad you're willing to say this. I see way too many places on the net where people are saying things like "This book sucked," or, "That author can't write," without any sort of introspection on behalf of the commentator. I can't remember the last time I read a truly bad book, though I've read plenty of books that I didn't necessarily like what the author was doing.

    I don't think the danger of falling into gushy relativism looms too menacingly so long as we keep in mind authorial intent. Sure, there are authors that I wouldn't waste my time reading and who may have the mental nutritional value of cardboard, but the author may have succeeded on any number of levels that I'm not looking to appreciate the book on, even if it was just to make a boatload of cash off of an unsuspecting and indiscriminate public.

  3. I'm not clear on why blame comes into a case like this. You are right not to blame the author (or editor, et al.) for a book that simply does not go where you want to go, but how does that make you to blame as a reader? Like your friend who didn't care to play Italo Calvino's game, you weren't inclined to play Masurek's game.

    De gustibus non est disputandum. No slippery slope is involved. One might be involved if you were unwilling to try a different taste, but nothing I've seen in lurking your blog leads me to suppose that. You tried it. You just didn't like it. No harm no foul.

  4. I want to out myself, too. I'm a failed reader of China Miéville. I keep trying, and wanting to like his books, and people I respect adore him... and they just don't work for me.

    I think I secretly want more depth of characterization and less pus.

  5. Matt, I see where you're coming from in a general sense here (and my own shame at my occasional passes into near-frothing hyperbole over the inexplicable success of authors who I don't enjoy makes me sympathetic to it), but although I'm certainly there for the idea of "different strokes for different folks" (which is where you appear to start), I'm not sure I'm willing to take it to your conclusion of failure on the reader's part.

    That said, this leads into greater issues of the nature of aesthetic satisfaction that I honestly don't believe I'm educated enough to wrap the proper arguments around. But as long as it's agreed that you or I might have different tastes in general, and something I think sucks might, however, be read with a sense of wonder or joy by you, we have to agree that one of us has failed, the author has failed one of us (but not the other), or there's simply never going to be a consensus (and there never, ever, will be one -- the IMDB reports that 357 people gave Uwe Boll's Alone in the Dark a perfect 10). But I'm not willing to feel guilt or a sense of failure over not enjoying a book.

  6. (Unlike any instances of hyperbole, my shame over using "who" instead of "whom," cannot be as easily shaken).

  7. Me too.

    It took me six attempts to finish "Perdido Street Station", and I bogged down halfway through "The Scar" more than a year ago. Not because they're bad books -- they're not -- but because they gave me indigestion. So did "Gravity's Rainbow": even though I managed to plough through "V" and "The Crying of Lot 49", "Gravity's Rainbow" exceeded my annual Pynchon quotient. And it took me a whole damn year to read Neal Stephenson's "Baroque Cycle".

    Now I find I am stalled two-thirds of the way through the Marusek book, even though I think it's bloody brilliant. (I'm taking time off for light escapism with A. N. Wilson's "The Victorians" and Vernor Vinge's "Rainbows End".)

    Bluntly: most of us read fiction for pleasure. Reading that forces us to work ... well, sometimes it's pleasurable, but sometimes it's just plain too much like hard work. It's okay if we're full of beans and ready and willing to engage with the chewy stuff, but if we're tired, irritable, of short attention span for whatever reason, we simply end up giving up. And these works -- they're none of them bad -- make much greater demands of the reader.

    Pet hypothesis: it used to be something of a cliche that the literary values inherent in written SF were crude compared to actual real capital-L literature, but SF readers got their kicks from the other aspects of the work. But now we've got writers of quality laying down the stuff, style and character study coexisting with plot and worldbuilding, the results are so densely textured that they're just plain difficult to read. This isn't stuff you'd lend your teenage kid brother or sister to while away a rainy afternoon. And this is an admission of failure.

  8. PS: My "Me too" was addressed to Elizabeth Bear's comments.

    And yes, I do recognize the irony of me complaining about the density of modern SF texts :)

  9. In some ways the word "failure" is too strong -- I wasn't thinking of it in a hugely guilty way (though I'm usually a master of feeling guilty for things), but rather in a matter-of-fact way: a failure to benefit from whatever pleasures the book offers to other readers. That ends up being an interesting situation to me, because I think it's fun to interrogate myself about what didn't work for me, and try to figure out why it worked for other people with whom I'm in agreement more often than not.

    All criticism can be reduced to de gustibus and "this didn't work for me", which is why I don't feel like I gain much from thumbs-up/thumbs-down sorts of reviews -- the value of criticism, whether it's positive or negative, is that it shows the process of thought leading to the judgment, and I feel like I learn a lot as a reader from people who can express how a book affected them, and how they reached whatever conclusions they did about it. Some books provide a lot more material for such thinking than do others.

    "Blame", then, is, indeed, a rather silly term for any of it, but I was in the mood for self-flagellation. My Puritan ancestors demand it every now and then...

  10. I was going to comment on the "blame" thing as well, but I see it has already been talked to death. Instead I shall out myself as someone who cannot read Terry Pratchett. Which is why I don't review his books.

  11. I'm stealing this from The Rake, who stole it from Steve Erickson's introduction to the new issue of Black Clock:

    "Not so many years ago I read an interview with a critic who was expounding on the importance of good taste. It occurred to me how once you begin worrying about whether your taste is 'good,' then you're calibrating your passions as others will judge them and your passions aren't your passions anymore but affectations. Preoccupation with one's taste is the way of small and cautious spirits. Any opinion worth a damn is an opinion that doesn't give a damn. In a severe and increasingly unforgiving new century, no pleasure is guilty; or perhaps, as Jonathan Lethem has said (only half-kiddingly, I think), all pleasure is guilty and that's the fun of it."

    (I think he could have phrased the "Preoccupation with one's taste" bit less ambiguously -- I'm reading it as meaning preoccupation with making sure your taste is good -- but I like the rest.)

  12. Just a side note, FWIW: I liked If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler up to the point when it started to explain itself.

  13. I feel the same way about "cloud Atlas" - much vaunted, much lauded, and left me cold. I could write reams about exactly why - and I might, in my own blog, this is hardly the time or the place - but I just thought I'd add a "me too" to the rest. I too am a failed reader although I *did* manage to connect to Mieville and his work, and I thought that "Iron council", and particularly its ending, was magnificent. But I'll stick my neck out and put forward another much lauded and much awarded novel that I cannot seem to read more than a few pages of without realising that my attention is wandering - "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell". it isn't the book's fault, and obviously enough other people liked it enough to give it every prize in the canon 0 but - somehow - it- just... [shrug]

    So. Another "bad reader", here.

  14. I hesitate to even say this, Matt, because you know your own tastes better than anybody... But, you know, you could always go back to the Marusek one idle day and love it. Some of my favorite books are books I've gotten halfway through and laid aside the first time I tried to read them. Sometimes it's just not the right time for a certain reader to read a certain book. So, I'd be willing to cut the reader a little more slack, even if it turns out that Counting Heads never does it for you. (I haven't read it yet, but am reallllly looking forward to it.)

  15. Don't hesitate to suggest it, Gwenda -- I actually thought of that myself today. I was about to put the book in a package going to Japan, and decided not to, because I'll probably give the book another go in a few months and see what happens...

  16. Have to agree with Gwenda. I tried Crowley's "Little, Big" two or three times before it grabbed me. Now it's one of my all-time favorites. And Cheryl: I'm glad to hear someone else has fallen out of love with Pratchett's books. When I find myself counting the pages until the end, that's not a good sign.

  17. It's got to be better to have written a book that not everyone likes, but that the people who do like it, really love, hasn't it, than to have written a book that everyone sort of thinks is OK?

    I think I started that sentence in the wrong place: it seems to have got tied in a knot...

    Jean Rogers

  18. I loved Cloud Atlas and thought, if anything, it was a bit too breezy.

    I can't read Jonathan Carroll.

  19. I'm not really anonymous, I'm Karen Miller. *g*

    Great blog topic. I'll add ...

    For me, all reading is subjective. There is no such thing as a good or bad book, but opinion makes it so. Or words to that effect. There are any number of hot selling, critically acclaimed books out there that do not float my boat, that I can't read, and some have been mentioned already. There are others that many love to deride as crap that I really love, for various reasons.

    I do get very very very pissy with the people who say, This book is crap *because I didn't like it*. That announces an arrogance I find breathtaking. Some people equate their opinion with a definitive pronouncement on literary merit. To those people I say, pull your heads out of your arses, chums. It's just your opinion, it didn't come down off the mountain engraved in stone.

    You're not a failure if you didn't like a book. You're a person with whom the author didn't connect. End of story.

    Happy reading!


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