I wrote a short story recently and, as all writers should (and as I suspect that only some actually do), I sent the draft out to people for review and comment.
There was one sentence that I put in that I was unsure about. It felt a bit forced, a bit writery, but I quite liked it so I left it in, knowing that it didn’t matter because I’d come back to it later during editing and I could always refine or remove it at that stage. Out of interest (mine, not yours), it was something about a pantomime witch.
So I sent it out for review, and one reader came back and said “yeah, about that line, it doesn’t really work. It comes across as a bit clunky, a bit as though you’re trying too hard”. And I had to agree. Confirmation that I was trying too hard.
Then another reader came back, and he highlighted the exact same line (literally – he inserted a comment directly into the text in Word because we are living in the future) and inserted the comment “Brilliant! Love it!”.
So where does that leave me?
In the end I decided to change the line, because I felt that a reader confirming my own nagging doubts about it trumped another reader liking it, but it disguises a deeper issue: where fiction is concerned, the reader is never wrong.
By this I mean that the reader is never wrong in the sense that a piece of fiction is designed to prompt a personal emotional reaction, and that all personal emotional reactions are completely subjective to each individual. So if a reader likes a line that I’ve written then he’s right to like it, but if another reader dislikes it then he’s equally right to dislike it. Fiction is like food in that it can be neither “right” nor “wrong”, and in that although the ingredients, portion size and nutritional content may vary, if a consumer likes it then that’s all that matters.
That said, considering the worrying levels of obesity in the US/UK perhaps consumers should lay off the cheap processed junk and concentrate more on stuff that’s altogether better for you. [is this just a bald statement about diet or is it in fact a cunning satire on the state of publishing? YOU DECIDE]
Just look at Amazon. For any book that has more than around a dozen reviews, even accounting for stooges and enemies of the author there will be at least one five-star review and at least one one-star review. Think about that: two people read exactly the same thing, and one thinks it is absolutely fantastic whilst the other thinks it is utter rubbish. Personal opinion is so subjective that it almost makes me wonder whether reviews have any value whatsoever.
Of course, I don’t think that reviews have no value. They do. I just think that all reviews are limited by the reviewer, and that no one review or reviewer can be considered to be an absolute guide to quality. At best all you can say is that if a particular reviewer’s tastes seem to be sufficiently similar to your own then you are probably going to like what they like and dislike what they like…but even then there is no guarantee that your tastes will coincide on everything. We are each a unique amalgamation of genetics and experiences, meaning that no two people are identical…and meaning that no two personal tastes are identical. Some people will like something about a pantomime witch, for example. Others will not.
Those are my thoughts, anyway. If your tastes are fairly similar to mine then you’ll probably agree with them, and if they aren’t then you probably won’t.
All that really matters, though, is what you think.