Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Don't apologize or explain, just cower under the furniture like a sensible person

Much writer-reader communication, particularly in the genres with organized fandoms, goes something like this:

Reginald W. Riter (in a public venue): What I actually meant in The Name of the Work, where the words say X, was X'. I am sorry for any confusion I may have caused any readers.

Frederick Fann (in an open fannish venue): I see Reggie Riter is trying to make excuses for having said X, and now he wants us to believe he really meant X", when it's abundantly clear he actually meant X'''.

Fanny ("Ph3an") Fanne (in a tightly restricted fannish venue): Thanks for telling me that because now I know I will never have to read any of Riter's works, because anyone who believes in X''' is also going to be anti-goodness and pro-nastiness. You have saved me a lifetime of reading time. To be on the safe side, I also won't read Roger Reiter, Robert Ryter, Regina Reichter, or Pauline Bystander, because I always confuse Pauline Bystander with Reginald W. Riter.

Pauline Bystander (when it is relayed to her): Hunh? Why are people boycotting my Evil is Bad™ series?

This is the main reason why it is a bad idea for writers to issue apologies and explanations. Every apology can be read as a confession of malign intent; every explanation can be read as an excuse. (This is because the human mind is enthymemic, and always constructs, understands, and responds to more than is said*.) And because they can be, they will be.
A secondary reason for not apologizing or explaining is that it tends to matter a great deal to fans, who then want your next work to fulfill what you promised to get off the hook for your last one. 

 Fan readers remember that stuff much more than general readers, and if you write entirely for the fans who pay attention to you, you are headed down the rabbit hole of diminishing returns; the moon bunnies vs. vacuum piranhas throwaway subplot in the first novel in your series, for which you apologized because you didn't provide enough of it and wasted time on other things, eventually takes over and dictates that as your audience slowly dwindles, and you really need to cultivate new readers, you'll be desperately trying to finish a seventh book titled Moon Bunnies v. Vacuum Piranhas: Final Showdown.

In my rough draft I had footnoted the point that fans don't read much like other readers with this:

Or even very much like other fans—fandom contains everything from high speed skimmers who pick up a few keywords while running a repetitive movie in their head, so that for them all books are the same book with a slightly different cast and gadgets, to sharp-eyed close readers who put more effort into correlating all the details of a Star Wars tie-in than most New Critics used to put into the theological implications of the metaphysical poets ...

... but then I realized that it wasn't really a footnote (by my rules**) because I did want to talk about that for a while, so what it is, properly,*** is a digression.

It's really more accurate to say that both fannish and nonfannish readers exhibit nearly every way of reading.****

What does differ, I think, is the distribution of approaches to reading in that two different populations, and that makes the business of responding to complaints even trickier.

In general fans of any genre read extraneous information differently; if I tell you that my hero yawned, stretched, and set his NoCatCorp Catwhacker down by the bed, readers of one kind of literary fiction will speculate or assume that it's a bit of throwaway absurdity, a clue to his grouchy nature, and perhaps a comment on consumerist society. A mystery reader will look for hints that the Catwhacker may be the murder weapon or that cat-hatred may be the motive. A science fiction reader may visualize a future in which cats are so pervasive and dangerous that everyone goes armed against them (as in J.T. McIntosh's The Fittest or Heinlein's The Puppet Masters) and an urban/paranormal fantasy reader may think the hero is a specialist in were-cougars.

Activating genre expectations opens a whole different realm of complaints. Some people want their genre to be relatively pure; I've seen many a fan of historicals, historical romances, or medieval-themed fantasy become furious when they found out they were reading one of the other genres (since those three sub-genres can sometimes go a few chapters before it's clear which we are reading). Some feel pandered or condescended to when the genre tropes are too dense ("he's just putting in a levitating car because he thinks all sci fi has to have levitating cars"), some feel it's a gesture of respect or fan service, some may like it themselves but feel embarrassed to be seen reading a book with that trope, and on and on.

Many people are irritated by tropes that might please a person they don't like—very often a person they are imagining rather than one they actually know. You see this in music all the time; woe unto the rocker who ventures into twangy territory and sounds too country, and double woe unto the country musician who is either so overproduced as to sound rockish or so simple and acoustic as to sound like a folkie, and all the sorrows of the universe will fall on a hip-hopper whose lyrics are about working hard at a legit job to make a living for his wife and kids, the female rocker who implies that her relationships are trivial compared to her career in marketing, or the atheist-themed country singer, because at once, a large part of the core fans will feel they are being betrayed as this is clearly far to accessible to Not Quite Our Sort.

But fretting that the Wrong People Will Like This is certainly not unknown in lit&reading; numerous people are infuriated because they imagine some other reader who is sniffling sentimentally over this crap like their damned idiot Aunt Wendy over her Christian women's novels, or feeling endorsed in a sadistic desire to conquer and degrade hapless campesinos*****, or laughing at deeply serious things that are never funny, or taking notes for some appallingly excessive shopping spree, or bouncing up and down in the chair and making machine gun noises out of sheer excitement, or or masturbating like a brain-damaged rhesus monkey.

Offhand, I would say more readers in the general world seem to get worried about imaginary readers liking this offending book; this is partly because so many fannish readers seem to have trouble imagining anyone who does not read the way they do, or for the purposes for which they read, so they can't imagine anyone being pleased and merely wonder why the book was published at all. The mainstream readers, unfortunately, have a highly precise mental picture of the exact sort of swine to which this book panders. So the general reader more often phrases the complaint as "pandering to swine" whereas the fan tends to say "nobody likes that crap, the only place where it shows up is in bestsellers."

Usually you don't know which class of reader has written to you or about you, so it's best not to answer, lest you end up in the sort of confusion that Sardou wrote brilliantly—the conversation that goes for hours before anyone notices that one guy is talking about not understanding a girlfriend and the other about taking an elderly dog to the vet to be put down. ("Sometimes she just sits at the foot of the stairs and howls to be carried up to the bed." "Sounds pretty cool." "Do you have any idea what she weighs? And she slobbers all over me while I'm carrying her." "Dude, if I had something like that waiting for me at home..." etc.) Before I learned this I had some much too amusing (now) correspondence.

But the final and best reason for not responding to reader complaints is that the reader, after all, read what they read the way they read it, and if you let them, they'll give you an idea of who's out there in the seats, and what they're digging and not, and why.

As a general principle, I don't believe in apology or explanation, but as a specific, I catch myself doing it every now and then. Sometimes someone just seems very confused on a point that is easy to straighten out; sometimes someone appears to feel guilty about disliking a book or story for what seems to me to be a perfectly fine reason; sometimes someone just needs to a clear, simple explanation of a concept like, "this text would work better if you stopped reading like you had brain pan full of pus, made yourself more comfortable by moving out of that puddle of your own urine, and eliminated distractions by taking your hand out of your filthy Spider-Man jammies, you drooling ignorant result of a syphilitic Klansman molesting a radioactive skunk." Addressing the critics is one of those mistakes that I in particular should avoid, I have concluded, like W should avoid the bottle, Bill Clinton should avoid women, or engineers should avoid choosing their own clothes.

One of these days I'll have some thoughts about where that leads, but I think I've probably wandered around the topic long enough for this time. Those of you that see a point other than "don't say too much to the unhappy reader," drop me a note at the email to the right; or, maybe, complain about it in public.


*a good thing too so your mother doesn't have to explain the laws of thermodynamics before you'll get away from the hot stove.

** which are, if you're wondering, and even if you're not, that I talk about whatever I like to talk about in all these posts, so I guess the whole thing is properly speaking a digression, but if I either don't care much whether you read it, or if it's really mainly a disclaimer on something I know some people are sensitive about, it goes to a footnote so as to be out of the way of people who read to get the main point. I often have no main points, or only find them in rewrite, at which times I sometimes sharpen and emphasize them because I realize I want to make them, but also sometimes throw them out, because they prevent seeing the more interesting things on the way, in much the same fashion that the interstate avoids that interesting old fallen-down abandoned farm or challenging-to-drive-well stretch of winding road, but some people who like main points are so charitable toward writers that they will keep reading a long time looking for one, and it seems to me that the least I can do is not actually put alleys that I know will be blind right in their way, as I do for the kind of readers who love discursion, either always or occasionally, when I realize I can keep a sentence like this one going for a really, really long time, as this one has done in explaining why I think some writing should have a main point and some should not, but there are people in the "always" and "never" camps as well.

*** I grew up using the pronoun phrase "what it is" to mean "the category to which it belongs," which is common in the Midwest but also in Appalachia and the Great Plains. This leads to sentences like "What it is, is a duck" or Andy Griffith's monologue "What it was, was football." The logic of English punctuation would say not to put a comma between the two verbs but since nearly everyone who uses that pronoun phrase takes a big pause there, and it improves readability, I nearly always put it in. It also provides a handy place to park an adverb like "properly." Inveterate sentence diagrammers may now fight about which "is" that adverb modifies.

****One possible exception: the professionally offended people who skim for words and expressions by which to be offended, while barely paying any attention to the text itself. That seems to be mostly a mainstream/nonfannish activity, perhaps because a fan whose entire reading activity was skimming for unacceptable words and concepts would be laughed at. (And yes, I know that some fans are deeply offended sometimes—but I'm not sure I've ever seen a genuine fan who did not read but simply skimmed for offense, whereas I've seen dozens of nongenre readers do that. If fans did that, we'd have a convention panel titled "This Year's Books You Didn't Read That Honked You In the Bikini Area." Or maybe a whole programming track so that skimmers for swear words, skimmers for ethnic slurs, and skimmers for hackneyed phrases won't get into fights with each other.

***** You didn't know the hap crop in Campesinia failed for the last three years and the global inventory of hap is 1/10 what it was in 2000? You haven't heard of Campesinian hap worm? Don't you stay in touch? Don't you even care?