Thursday, June 21, 2012

Our Woes Aren’t So New…

…I found out while reading, and discovered this passage from a writer who lived around 600 years ago:

“But in fact, to tell you the truth, I myself have not yet made up mind whether or not to publish it at all. For the tastes of mortals are so various, the temperaments of some are so bitter, their minds so ungrateful, their judgments so preposterous that a person would do far better to follow his own bent and lead a merry life than to wear himself out trying to publish something useful or entertaining for an audience so finicky and ungrateful. Most people know nothing about learning and many despise it. Dummies reject as too hard whatever is not dumb. The literati look down their noses at anything not swarming with obsolete words. Some like only ancient authors; many like only their own writing. One person is so dour that he cannot abide jokes; another is so witless that he cannot stand anything witty. Some have so little nose for satire that they dread it the way someone bitten by a rabid dog fears water. Others are so changeable that their approval depends on whether they are sitting down or standing up.

“They sit around in taverns and over their cups they pontificate about the talents of writers, condemning each author just as they please, pulling him down through his writings as if they had grabbed him by the hair, while they themselves are safe and out of harm’s way, as the saying goes, because these good men have their whole heads smooth-shaven so that there is not a single hair to grab on to.

“Furthermore, some are so ungrateful that, even though a work has given them great pleasure, they still do not like the author any better because of it. They are not unlike ill-mannered guests who, after they have been lavishly entertained at a splendid banquet, finally go home stuffed without saying a word of thanks to the host who invited them. Go on, now, and at your own expense provide a banquet for persons of such delicate palates and various tastes, who will remember and repay you with such gratitude!”
(Thomas More, Utopia, his letter to Peter Giles)

It seems subjectivity has always been with us and always will be.

I recently read a newsletter from a prominent author and writing teacher who said we need to dumb down our prose because the average reader struggles to understand anything difficult or beyond their limited vocabulary. That authors should be careful in what they write, to make sure they write clearly and leave little for any other interpretation than what they mean their writing to say.

That same day I pulled up an article by another prominent writer, who like most giving advice on this subject, emphatically urges authors not to dumb down their prose but to say true to their I.Q. That readers are smarter than we tend to think and will easily comprehend what we are trying to say.

I think there is a nugget of truth in both and that both are equally wrong. There are all kinds of readers out there, people of varying taste, I.Q., vocabulary, and need. When you publish a book, it’s free for anyone to read and once out of our hands and into theirs, it’s open to reader interpretation, no matter their limitations. Some people will understand your writing and connect with it. Others won’t. Authors have no control over this.

I think, instead, it’s important to know who you are writing for and to stay true to that audience. Don’t worry about everyone else who might pick up your book. If you wish to make a connection with a more intellectual crowd, write for them. If you wish to encourage people who don’t read as much or as well, write for them. Know your audience.

The same goes for what you write about and how you present your writing. Know what your target audience expects, likes, and needs. Write to those expectations. Certainly others will groan, complain, or just not get what your books is about or trying to say. Don’t stress about that.

I know that numbers are an important equation in the publishing game. I’ve seen this past week a handful of authors vent about reviews from readers who didn’t get their books or maybe didn’t even read them all the way through before passing judgment. These authors wanted and expected full stars for their work. I understand their frustrations but I also know that if you live each day to how many stars you get from any reviewer you’re going to get hurt or upset. The right audience will appreciate what you write. Others won’t. It’s as simple as that. Let the ignorant or bad reviews slide off your shoulders, or better yet, don’t go looking for them.

What do you think?


  1. Too true. And yet, people fail to see time and time again how there is no way anyone can please EVERYONE; that this business is highly subjective, and just because someone's opinion doesn't agree with yours, it doesn't mean they are in the wrong.

    It's a scary thing--reviews, I mean--but there's no way around it. Best to accept this early on, and keep on moving forward. :)

  2. It's always so interesting and scary to realize that people hundreds of years before experienced the SAME EXACT things you experience right now. Because most people (me included) used to think that the ancient people, well, didn't feel, or were so different. It's so shocking to see and hear them talk about the same problems, such as publishing, heartbreak, betrayal, etc. Stuff you only think would happen in OUR time. It's really eye-opening, and this post was excellent in that! I love what you said about subjectivity; you can never please everybody.

  3. Very interesting to read what Thomas More had to say. Some things never change. I would, however, recommend a little more flexibility than More had (although one must appreciate his conviction.) I guess staying true to yourself is important. In my mind, it tops staying true to what a target audience wants from you. But I have no credentials to back that up. Nor would I lose my head over holding to that. I guess my target audience would include readers with some flexibility. People expect to be thrilled and/or frightened by Uncle Stevie, but, while he doesn't (thank the gods) slip into sappy romantic tragedy, he does vary his terrain. But then, we do have certain expectations when we pick up his books, and no doubt we'd want to live up to any expectations we might earn from people who read us.

    Nice to know a man of such stature (More, that is) also got his briefs in a bunch over the same things we do now. Thanks for that.