Accuser and Accusee

by Joan Frank

September 2017

I once asked a hugely-admired, much-awarded, serious literary writer, who's been a kind and generous friend to me, how she was feeling following an extensive book tour.

"Fragile," she answered.

Her response puzzled me, and I confess thinking it, at the time, somewhat self-indulgent. After all, most writers would kill to have the "problem" of book tour fatigue. We throw our souls into getting work accepted for publication, and then (if luck's still with us) getting it recognized – every phase of which requires Herculean stores of drive, energy, and stamina. Book tours, and their fallout, should surely be the spoils of war.

But after a recent visit to a reading group – a seemingly innocent, pleasant, straightforward task, not to say privilege – I understood my friend's bewildered exhaustion.

Until now, I'd always assumed that talking to reading groups pretty much guaranteed a love-fest.

You didn't worry about it beforehand. You felt pre-vetted. A bunch of individuals had read your book and then invited you to visit to discuss it, which to my mind means they've liked it enough to want to learn more, and to talk about their responses to it.

Maybe most of the time, that's indeed what happens. An author sits down among a group of friendly faces and, prompted by their good questions, pours out her heart about the making of the story, her writing path, a few funny or sad or frustrating anecdotes connected with its publication.

This time, I visited a group of intelligent, affluent women in a beautiful, woodsy setting. They'd certainly read the book, and a few of them cornered me at once to sign their copies. But while a couple of the group's members immediately brought up how much they'd enjoyed my novel, others sat with arms folded, eyeing me narrowly – as though I were trying to sell them bogus medicine or time-shares in a non-existent condo.

One member of this group noted that she did not believe my characters' ages. Another declared that the two protagonists depicted in my novel, who are often irritated with each other and have one horrendous fight, did not really love one another.

Oh. Really?

"How did you come to write in so many sentence fragments?" asked another woman, in a tone striving for scientific curiosity, which of course only underscored her sharp dislike of sentence fragments. Carefully, I explained that I was closely tracking the interior thoughts of my characters, and that to my knowledge people didn't tend to think in meticulously structured, grammatically complete sentences – rather, their thoughts came in clumps of words with abrupt starts and stops; often certain phrases referred to personal history, and therefore functioned symbolically.

My explanation was met with polite silence.

As to the characters not loving each other? Instinct made me open my hands: "That's up to you," I said as cheerfully as I could. Those characters belong to you now, I reminded them – echoing Elizabeth Strout's response, when listeners asked her who may have been the model for Strout's fabulous protagonist, Olive Kitteridge. Because if I dared contradict their convictions about who loved who or who was behaving badly or not acting their ages, these earnest readers would simply turn on me and tell me I was dead wrong.

They laughed when I suggested that, recognizing the built-in absurdity of the predicament. But though on its surface we had all "played nicely," by the end of the night I was feeling – frankly – somewhat brutalized. I couldn't wait to drive home, get a couple of stiff drinks down, and talk it over with my husband.

He's a retired college teacher, who's spoken before roomfuls of adoring, confused, skeptical, scornful, or bored individuals for so many years I won't embarrass him by naming the number.

He reminded me that people bring unknowable baggage to their reading, and then to the event itself; that you simply can't second-guess what backstories may shape their responses – why this or that person seems to be listening to you with suspicion or even obvious distaste. For authors, no score sheet's handed back to you (thank God; I don't think I'd want to see one). No follow-up surveys appear, as if you were an online purchase.

Except – alas! You most probably are an online purchase. For better or worse, a book is now absolutely perceived as a product – never mind what it cost to create or promote – and the reader regards herself as a consumer with consumer rights, expecting a warrantied level of satisfaction. If that feels missing to her, the lack will likely be announced: by word of mouth, or a bad review (often online) – or as a sour face and accusatory questioning during book group visits or bookstore readings.

I am still trying to understand my feelings about this, because I'm supposed to be a pro. I've been writing for almost thirty years. I've appeared before plenty of classes, bookstore audiences, and book groups. Yet this last event, for all its surface courtesy and terrific food and pretty surroundings, reminds me that I'm still as vulnerable as a newcomer – prey to feeling depleted, defensive, and depressed by periodic glimpses of what I can only call hostility.

Granted, a writer tends to wear her guts on the outside of her skin, hopelessly sensitive to subtlest nuances of atmosphere and behavior. Yet, again, after six books of literary fiction and two books of essays, I'm supposed to be seasoned. You puts your work out there and you takes your lumps. You shut up. You carry on.

But the overall effect of that recent evening confounded me. Many of those women just didn't get it. Didn't get the novel's voice, its vision, its passion, its quest. They wanted instead to quarrel with particulars, to demand justification for them. They seemed to willfully ignore or never at all to grasp the "force through the green fuse," to swipe from Dylan Thomas.

Some authors will dismiss such experience: "Too bad; not my circus; whatever." Others might consider that the fault for the above stalemate may be their own: that their art has, in fact, failed. But that won't make sense mathematically, if most readers have actively loved the same work.

Also, humility's important – but self-castigation doesn't help make more art.

So I wonder how to retool expectations.

It's one thing to consider the notion of hostile readers in the abstract: some band of bland-faced citizens moving vaguely around out there, grumbling. You can read the terrible reviews they write on Amazon: often clumsy, crude, even misspelled.

It's another to be eating their pasta salad, petting their cat, and staring into their frowning faces, as they ask you to explain why you did something they don't like.

I made this book, but its life is now its own. You can like it or not, but with all respect, I am not at this point obliged to defend or justify it, should probably serve as an author's standard-issue, no-comment comment. I've always suspected that the moment an author tries to defend or justify her work she is tacitly validating her accuser's objection, like trying to form a response to Have you stopped beating your wife yet?

But the author-as-mortal-human faces, in reality, a new hurdle to drag herself over: loneliness. That is, a new kind of loneliness. Because loneliness is something at which we're already pretty well-practiced.

You want people to read, and to love reading. You bang your drum furiously to bring attention to your hard-wrought book. But when attention comes, it invariably contains naysayers (who find the damnedest things not to like).

The only feasible conclusion?

Simply, that it be's this way.

There will always be people who'll love your work, which of course will always give joy. But alongside them will crop up, just as surely, a stubborn margin of thumbs-downers with highly specific complaints. Given this inevitability (over which she has no control), the writer has no choice but to allow for it, but also to learn to somehow place herself at a safe, psychic distance from it, certainly never to feel obliged to "solve" it – humans are too various – and above all, never to let it puncture or stall or tarnish or contaminate her ownership of, and faith in, her work: past, present, future.

Fragile? Yes. Bruised? Maybe a little. But only – necessarily – for a short while.

Then, back to it.

Joan FrankComment