Monday, August 1, 2016

The Reader Variable

The reading experience is about more than the book itself, because the experience of reading is contributed to by the reader as well. Everything we processes is filtered through our own experiences, beliefs and knowledge base.

No matter how technically precise a written with is, it may fail to spark the interest of the reader so that they pursue the reading journey. This may not have anything to do with a shortcoming of the author, but may be due to the specific interests or knowledge base of the reader.

It may also be that a reader becomes enthralled with a work, praising it and recommending it widely and referring to the inspiration or emotion drawn from the experience of reading that work.

That may not necessarily be because the work is a tour de force; it may be that there are elements within the work that speak to the reader personally because they relate to the situation, information or emotions in the story.

For me, one work that I have a strong personal connection to is Lake Wobegon Days. Garrison Keillor's novel might be special to people who live in Minnesota. It might be a favorite of Keillor's fans.

However, in my case, the connection has to do with the section of the book that covers religion.

Whenever a special Bible study meeting was scheduled for Sunday afternoon at 3:00, we couldn't drive home after morning meeting, have dinner, and get back to St. Cloud in time, so one Sunday our family traipsed over to a restaurant that a friend of Dad's had recommended. Phil's House of Good Food. The waitress pushed two tables together and we sat down and studied the menus.
The waitress came and stood by Dad. "Can I get you something from the bar?" she said. Dad blushed a deep red. The question seemed to imply that he looked like a drinker. "No," he whispered, as if she had offered to take off her clothes and dance on the table. Then another waitress brought a tray of glasses to a table of four couples next to us. "Martini," she said, setting the drinks down, "whiskey sour, whiskey sour, Manhattan, whiskey sour, gin and tonic, martini, whiskey sour."
"Ma'am? Something from the bar?" Mother looked at her in disbelief.
Suddenly the room changed for us. Our waitress looked hardened, rough, cheap--across the room, a woman laughed obscenely, "Haw, haw, haw"--the man with her lit a cigarette and blew a cloud of smoke--a swear word drifted out from the kitchen like a whiff of urine--even the soft lighting seemed suggestive, diabolical. To be seen in such a place on The Lord's Day--what had we done?
Now, a lot of people with a religious upbringing might relate to the idea of avoiding the evil sinners in the world.
The first time I saw a television set in a Brethren house, I was dumbfounded. None of the Wobegonian Brethren had one; we were told that watching television was the same as going to the movies--no, in other words. I wondered why the St. Cloud people were unaware of the danger. You start getting entangled in the things of the world, and one thing leads to another. First it's television, then it's worldly books, and the next thing you know, God's people are sitting around drinking whiskey sours in dim smoky bars with waitresses in skimpy black outfits and their bosoms displayed like grapefruit.
Yup, it's a slippery slope on the path to sin. And some of you might relate to that type of thinking too, but if you haven't been Brethren, or been extremely closely associated with someone who is closed Brethren, you simply will not have the same experience reading this section of the book that I did.

In a town where everyone was either Lutheran or Catholic, we were neither one. We were Sanctified Brethren, a sect so tiny that nobody but us and God knew about it, so when kids asked what I was, I just said Protestant. It was too much to explain, like having six toes. You would rather keep your shoes on.
We were "exclusive" Brethren, a branch that believed in keeping itself pure of false doctrine by avoiding association with the impure. We made sure that any who fellowshipped with us were straight on all the details of the Faith, as set forth by the first Brethren who left the Anglican Church in 1865 to worship on the basis of correct principles.
I remember when a friend, well known to many people in our meeting, joined us one Sunday. She had the nerve to smile. She'd done several missionary trips. One of the brothers gave her communion.

One of the elders in the church scowled and protested that she didn't even look like a Christian. I kid you not. She was properly clothed... Oh, wait.
My mother never wore slacks, though she did dress my sister in winter leggings, which troubled Grandpa. "It's not the leggings so much as what they represent and what they could lead to," he told her. He thought that baby boys should not wear sleepers unless they were the kind with snaps up the legs. Mother pointed out that the infant Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes. "That doesn't mean he wore a dress," Grandpa said. "They probably wrapped his legs separately."
She respectfully had her head covered in a scarf, but dammit, she smiled, and that was not acceptable... And she wore pants. And she was not confirmed Brethren. I suppose that's something they have in common with Catholics. They feel the need to determine who meets their criteria for communion. (When you travel to a different Brethren Assembly you have to take a letter signed by elders from your meeting to be presented and approved so that you can have communion there.)
Uncle Mel's wife, Rita, was a Lutheran. She only came occasionally and when she did she stood out like a brass band. She used lipstick and had plucked eyebrows and wore bright hats. Brethren women showed only a faint smudge of powder on their cheeks and their hats were small and either black or navy blue. Once Rita spoke up in the meeting--Al had stood up to read from the Lord's Word, and she said, "Pardon me, which chapter did you say?"--and we all shuddered as if she had dropped a plate on the floor: women did not speak in meeting. Another time, Sunday morning, she made as if to partake of the bread as it was passed, and Grandpa snatched it away from her. It had to be explained to Rita later that she could not join in the Lord's Supper with us because she was not in fellowship.
Lisa's venture with our Brethren Assembly (and Robert's actions in giving her communion) ultimately led to a split.

The split with the Johnsons was triggered by Mr. Johnson's belief that what was abominable to God in the Old Testament must be abominable still, which he put forward at the Grace & Truth Bible Conference in Rapid City in 1932. Mr. Cox stood up and walked out, followed by others. The Abomination Doctrine not only went against the New Covenant of Grace principle, it opened up rich new areas of controversy in the vast annals of Jewish law. Should Brethren then refrain from pork, meat that God had labeled "unclean"? Were we to be thrown into the maze of commandments laid out in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, where we are told to smite our enemies with the sword and stone to death rebellious children?

The history of the Brethren splits could be its own full-length book. There's another line in Lake Wobegon Days about how once people got a taste of being right there were more and more splits. And that's really how it was. The whole account of life in a Brethren Assembly spoke straight to my personal experiences, and reading Lake Wobegon Days after leaving the Assembly meant the experience was incredibly powerful for me. I took the book along to the homes of others who had left in the split and watched them laugh until they cried when they realized that someone else out there understood. It was incredibly therapeutic, and we all felt a little less isolated because there was a sense we had shared an experience with the author.

And it doesn't matter what church you've left along the way; if it wasn't Brethren you won't have the same experience I did when I read that chapter, because you don't have same basis of understanding for the intricacies of their doctrine, their process and lifestyle. In the same way, I could never fully understand the intricacies of leaving the life of the Amish or traditional Mennonite behind. Religion and lifestyle might be tied up in it, but it's still different.

When you write, you do the best job you can to tell the most compelling story that will capture the audience's interest. However, there are things that are out of your control, and one of them is the reader variable. The experiences the reader does or does not bring to the experience will contribute to their level of appreciation for your work. If they are extremely enthusiastic it may not be because the work is exceptional, but because they personally connect to it in some way. And if they don't enjoy it, it may not be because the work falls short; it may simply be that they don't connect to the characters or story, or even that something in the book conflicts with their personal experiences in a way that deters them from enjoying it.

The writing experience is its own experience. The reading experience is a shared experience as the reader interacts with the writing. They bring in their own background, history, experiences and values, and those things will influence their reading of your work. It doesn't always mean they didn't "get" it, and it doesn't always mean you're as brilliant a writer as one reader thinks you are. It just means that their variable increased or reduced the perception of your work.

That's what's out of your hands as a writer. It presents an enormous challenge, because you want your book to appeal to as many people as possible, but it may reference things you have a deep knowledge of that not all readers understand, and you'll have to try to decide whether you'll write it for those who share that knowledge, or those who don't. Either way, you risk alienating one group of potential readers. That's why you need to focus on telling the story you want to tell, trusting your editor when you're told to add more or make adjustments, and let go of the response, because how a person interprets a book isn't all about your writing. A very big part of it is about them, and that's something you have no control over.

Jesus said, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them," and the Brethren believed that was enough. We met in Uncle Al's and Aunt Flo's bare living room with plain folding chairs arranged facing in toward the middle. No clergyman in a black smock. No organ or piano, for that would make one person too prominent. No upholstery, it would lead to complacency. No picture of Jesus, he was in our hearts.
My affections were not pure. They were tainted with a sneaking admiration of Catholics--Catholic Christmas, Easter, the Living Rosary, and the Blessing of the Animals, all magnificent. Everything we did was plain, but they were regal and gorgeous.


Kristopher said...

This is a wonderful essay Sandra and oh, so true.

This is a large reason why I decided not to post negative reviews when I started my book blog. I have found that I can read the same book in different ways depending on where I am as a person at the time of the reading. This has little to do with the book itself. And it why reading is such an important part of my life.

My blog is intended to encourage people to read, to find the books that resonate with them. So, I refuse to discourage someone from picking up something that they think might engage them. Sure, I am critical of some books and like to look at where they fit into the whole canon of writing, but every book has a reader and every reader, a book.

A review is only an opinion. An opinion based on more than just the quality of the book itself. This is largely why reviews, good or bad, should have little influence on writers. You will never please everyone - and if you did, it would probably be because you didn't take any chances.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I agree. I felt I had to be willing to say something didn't work for me, and why, just for credibility so a compliment would have merit. I'm past that now. I only plan to post reviews of works I can recommend. If it isn't for me, I'm just going to move along.