One Book. Two Readers. Different Meanings.
Author Diana Y. Paul on how different readers react to the same book and how book clubs, especially, can inspire authors.
I believe no two readers actually read the same book. Every time I meet with a book club, this confirms my belief that the writer creates about 70-80% of the story and 20-30% is completed by the reader.
Books mean different things to different people or different things to the same person at various points in our lives. A reader’s response to a book is very personal and unique, shaped by their own experiences and emotions. It’s like some kind of Rorschach Test, though, I confess I haven’t learned how to interpret it.
According to recent research in neurology, when people read about a conflict-riddled experience, their response is as if they were going through that experience themselves. This has been called “mirror neurons”. And reading has been shown to be a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, even when the story is dramatic, unsettling, or unresolved. (See The New Yorker, July 9, 2016)
My debut novel, Things Unsaid, can bring out some pretty strong responses. I was nervous about my first book club session, because there is a controversial scene involving a mother and her young son, a scene I wasn’t sure I even wanted to include because it broke so many conventional boundaries. The book club gave astonishing interpretations of the importance of that scene, and its foreshadowing of future events. They had interpretations I had never imagined. Not one of them thought it should be omitted. Furthermore, several of the readers felt that the young boy’s experience made his actions as an adult more comprehensible.
Some readers hated the protagonist, some loved her. Some found the mother who is at the center too wicked and hateful to understand, while others felt sympathy for her because of her broken dreams and narcissism.
I often suspect that at least some of the people who really dislike the mother and protagonist had similar mothers and do not want to deal with that, or conversely, had wonderful mothers and don’t quite understand how someone could be un-maternal. Sometimes I run up against a proverbial brick wall, when a reader feels she can’t like any of the characters. . Stories are personal and subjective responses are not only inevitable, they’re good.
Opportunities to be in touch with readers is very limited. Every time I hear a book club member give me an alternative ending to Things Unsaid I have another way of looking at the characters I create as a writer. Book clubs are a valuable resource and I am always looking for an opportunity to learn from them.
Diana Y. Paul was born in Akron, Ohio and is a graduate of Northwestern University, with a degree in both psychology and philosophy, and of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, with a PhD in Buddhist studies. She is the author of three books on Buddhism, one of which has been translated into Japanese and German (Women in Buddhism, University of California Press), and her short stories have appeared in a number of literary journals. She lives in Carmel, CA with her husband and two cats, Neko and Mao. To learn more about Diane, visit her author website at http://www.dianaypaul.com and her blog on movies, art, and food at http://www.unhealedwound.com or follow her on Twitter: @DianaPaul10.
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