Five years ago, when my first novel came out, a barrier existed between author and reader. Certainly, I received emails—wonderful emails—but I took a while to answer them, I neglected a few, and for the most part, I was overwhelmed to hear so directly from people who had spent so many patient hours inhabiting a fictional world I had created.
Do you remember a cheesy old movie called “The Boy In the Bubble?” Thanks to Google, I just looked it up. Yep, 1982, John Travolta. Wow. I can laugh now, but I remember how that movie captivated me. I was fascinated and horrified by the sense of a person cut off from the physical world, and the idea that he might just die suddenly if the barrier was breached, and the notion that in some cases, that risk would be worth taking. Who wants to stay in a bubble?
Email, Facebook, instantly downloadable ebooks, online reader reviews, instant sales metrics and more have breached the author-reader barrier. Now, authors are expected to communicate more directly with their readers. At the very least, readers have gained power, able to talk back instantly, to enter a cultural conversation that was once open only to professional reviewers and the editorial mandates of a limited number of venues.
For an author, it’s a little scary at first. What if a writer gets sucked into interacting too often, compromising time for writing? (It certainly happens.) What if readers insist on making off-point comments in their reviews? What if readers are unfair? Whose book is this, anyway?
The truth is: it’s the reader’s book. The author had her chance—two years, or five. The editor had her chance as well. But now, like a teenager leaving the nest, insisting upon independence and individuation, the book shakes off its previous ownership and steps out into the wider world.
Occasionally, I’ve disagreed with or winced at remarks from readers and reviewers. But more often, I’ve enjoyed reading some really well-written summaries and analyses of my novels. Nearly always, there are surprises: readers liking and responding to things that I, the author, wasn’t so sure readers would like, or taking away a different message from the one I intended. Or the one reader in twenty who is particularly critical, but in a way that makes me think, “I agree!” – not that I want to add any ammunition. Or the readers who gravitate to a certain character, not the one I expected. Or the readers who assume I’m a man, or European, or much older, based on what I’ve written. Or the reader who finds some very nifty symbolism that I didn’t intend. (I’m willing to accept credit, of course.) Or the reader or interviewer who digresses from my plotline into a larger philosophical or historical question or argument and I think: Yes, go there. I’m thrilled to hear how this relates to something else happening in the real world, especially if it’s something you’ve personally experienced.
Perhaps I’m supposed to stay in my bubble, but frankly, I find these comments and reviews and conversations more interesting and encouraging than not. Do I prefer five-star reviews over three- or four-star reviews that argue or quibble? Actually, I like them both. What encourages me most is the idea that people are taking the time, not only to read, but to respond, to recommend, to talk back, to advocate or disagree, to grab a book and give it a good shake, to make it their own.
Whether we meet elsewhere, at a book event or online, I’m glad you stopped by. I look forward to hearing or reading your side of the conversation, whether it’s about a book I’ve written, or about books in general.