by Laura Crum
A lot of people suppose that being famous, even in a small way, is huge ego gratification. And yes, it can be. I am not famous, really, but there are those who know who I am from reading my books, and I am sometimes asked to speak at various gatherings. And yes, it is flattering. The other day I had a rather unusual experience along these lines, and thought I’d write about it.
So, normally when I give a “book talk”, it’s at a library or bookstore, and the people who come are either fans of my books, or mystery fans in general, or people who like horses and think they might like my books. And normally I give some kind of presentation (geared to the audience for that event), and take questions. I strive to be entertaining, and mostly I do a pretty good job of this, I think. And it’s all very flattering, though a bit time consuming and tiring for someone who is basically an introvert. To be frank, I don’t seek these events, though I have done a lot of them in twenty years of being a published author.
But my most recent event was a real change of pace. I was invited to speak to a book club—a dozen women who meet regularly to discuss the book that they had chosen for the month. They had been meeting in this way for many, many years, and now, for the first time, they wanted to read a book by a local author and have that author come address their group.
This sounded easy enough, and, of course, I agreed. The group chose my most recent novel, Barnstorming, and they all bought copies of the book (good). And on the evening in question, I showed up to give my “book talk.”
Well. They were all very nice people and they had wine and lots of food and it was very pleasant. But…their usual habit was to discuss the book they had read and say what they did and did not like about it. And it became clear to me as the evening went on that this was more or less what they intended to do—as I listened.
To be frank, at first I sort of inwardly rolled my eyes. I was now supposed to listen to my book being dissected (in the nicest possible way) by these well-meaning ladies? They had called me out on a winter’s night for this? Surely they could have talked about their impressions of the book minus my presence.
It wasn’t terribly different from reading reader reviews on Amazon—except that none of them were mean. They all said that they liked the book. And then proceeded to give their thoughts about it—not all of which were terribly flattering. Once I got my head around the fact that this was the evening’s event, it was actually pretty interesting.
It soon became clear that this was not my usual audience. None of them had horses or were at all interested in horses. Most of them were not mystery fans and knew little to nothing about the genre. Their book club read all kinds of books, but apparently few of these books had been mysteries. They all enjoyed the background of Barnstorming (the area where we all live), and most seemed to really enjoy the character of my protagonist and the overall story, but they were accustomed to reading longer, meatier books (think “The Poisonwood Bible,” which was mentioned), and I could tell by their comments that they felt my book was pretty lightweight.
At one point they went around the room, giving their impressions of the book. One woman said, “Horsey,” and I wasn’t at all sure this was a compliment. Another said, “Cute,” which I was sure wasn’t a compliment. And then she explained that she had never before thought of a horse as being “cute,” and my description of Sunny, using that adjective, was a revelation to her.
At this I actually laughed out loud. The idea of someone who had never thought of any horse as being “cute” is pretty foreign to me.
Eventually, as they discussed my book, including me from time to time, one woman said that, of course, as an artist, I needed to follow my own path. She used that word, “artist” in the somewhat heavy way many people employ this term, and I had to chime in.
“I don’t think of myself as an artist,” I said. “My books are not literary novels, they’re mysteries. I think of myself as a craftsman. I know how to make a good chair. In other words, I know how to make a pleasant, entertaining story. My books are “airplane books.” You get on the plane in San Francisco with the book and it keeps you entertained for your three hour flight and you disembark in New York and leave the book on the plane.”
They all looked at me with big eyes, and one woman said, “Well, I’m really glad you said that.” (It was only too clear that she had been WANTING to point out that my book was not great literature but was afraid to insult me.)
And then she went on to say (at some length) that she had enjoyed the book partly because it was “easy.” At this point another woman jumped in and said that she didn’t agree and she thought there were some very interesting philosophical points in the story (again at some length).
So eventually I chimed in and said that though I made “chairs,” not great art, I did try to make the most beautiful chairs that I could, and that I spent quite a bit of time contemplating what I really wanted to talk about in a given book, and then I shaped the mystery around this. I tried to make the books as insightful as I could, within the context of the stories remaining fast- reading mysteries.
The discussion went on along these lines, and I did find it very interesting to hear these strangers’ impressions of my book. It was a touch awkward to hear the book’s possible faults pointed out—because unlike in a writing group, my published book is a done deal. It isn’t going to change now. If you point out a problem, I can explain to you what I was trying to do, but I can’t “fix” it. It was clear that these people were used to pointing out what worked and didn’t work for them and speculating on what the author was trying to convey in a certain passage. A couple of times I finally interrupted and said, “I can tell you what I was trying to do here. It may or may not have worked for you, and that’s OK, but I can explain what the point was meant to be.”
Anyway, it was a pleasant evening and they were all nice people. Most of them said that they would like to read the whole series and see how the character evolved (yay). I had to feed my horses in the dark, but hey, I’ve done that before.
So have any of you other authors done something like this? Any thoughts on how you would have handled it?
As you know, I really enjoy your books. I have a dear friend that is always asking me what I am reading and then passing judgement on my shallow depth of material (no kidding - that is what she says!) I just kind of snicker to myself. She so doesn't get the point. I want to be entertained. I like books that paint pictures and feelings for me - I guess I am too lazy to sit with a dictionary and pick apart or analyze a paragraph to get a feeling or visual from it. And I am not bragging but I have a very good vocabulary so it isn't that I am dense. Now...this same friend LOVES, LOVES, LOVES the sitcom "My Name is Earl". I watched one time. To say that I wasn't a big fan is the understatement of the year. When ever she asks me if I have watched it...I just want to say... "It doesn't have the depth of material that I aspire to". ha,ha,ha.... it takes all kinds. :)
Horsegenes--I agree. I don't much care for "heavy" books any more--I could read them when I was young. Like you, I want to be entertained and read books that take me somewhere interesting. I have no wish to analyze. Too funny about the sitcom. Am I allowed to say that I am sort of a snob about people who watch TV sitcoms? Or does that make me evil?
I read all sorts of things - fiction, non-fiction, light and heavy. I'm a big mystery fan, and even within the mystery "genre", as in sci-fi, there is a lot of variation. There's nothing better than a good read, and a properly crafted, not heavy-as-a-brick book, of whatever type, is a worthwhile thing.
Your book club evening sounds like an odd combination of fascinating and uncomfortable. I'm not an author, so can't comment on that aspect.
I'm a horse person and writer as well and other than a few articles I've not had any of my projects published. My first thought is that you handled it impeccably better than I would have! The second thought is to use it as fuel for your next book.
In my opinion, unless a reader has a love horses they're not going to get the full experience of reading your books, period. You're a horse person and horses are as much a part of your life as breathing. Being a horse person is not a hobby but a way of life and a way of being. Your writing is going to emulate that in every sense. Most people that live lifes with compartmental hobbies don't understand that. Until they do, they can't give a full critique. They can only give a critique of what relates to them.
Truthfully, what determines great literature? A great plot? Great characters? Great wording? Each person has their own definition of what great literature. You're not going to please everyone because everyone doesn't have the same definition of great literature. So write what you know is going to please the ones you WANT to please.
Unless I have something in common through work, I have a very hard time interacting with non-horse people. Even if they're writers, I still have a hard time! I just can't get my head around how they think or what they fill their time with. It's like they're a different species! Because of that however, if I wanted to broaden my readership, I'd take their points of view as kernals of good information. Along those same lines, you literally got into their heads without them even knowing it. So you can take that and use it.
Don't let their thoughts discourage you in your writing. You've found your niche that you enjoy and obviously others enjoy. That in itself is success!
Wow, that sounds like a really awkward situation. I am guessing that none of those ladies are writers themselves. How could they think that would be pleasant for you?
Teachers sort of experience local fame (or infamy). It can be a bit unnnerving when your students' inform you that they saw you at Shoprite or the mall. Once a parent started asking me how her child was doing in my class when she bumped into me at a restaurant. I am also an introverted person, so this can make me feel like I want to be a hermit on the weekends. Luckily, barns are good for squirreling yourself away.
You handled it well, it sounds like. I can't imagine how awkward that was.
When I listen to "literary" book club folks talk and "interpret" what they have read, I always want to tell them that maybe the author just meant that the sky was blue and that's why the author wrote that the sky was blue, that there might not have been any "deeper meaning".
Gah! That's why I don't do book clubs. I don't pull off pseudo-intellectual well. I just *like* to read. I have enough going on in my life that I don't need to seek deeper meaning from the books I read.
That experience sounds akin to a trip to the Dentist. Sheesh! You handled it beautifully.
I just finished Slickrock today, I gotta tell you, I loved it! For a brief moment in time, I didn't have a care in the word. I was in those woods, experiencing every bit of it. Great story! It got me through an incredibly boring day and then some. I can't wait to read more! I've read Cutter, loved it, now Slickrock, and I have Hoofprints ready to go on my Kindle.
Hey! I watch some of those silly sit-coms, Laura! ;) (I am a Big Bang Theory Junkie.. lol)
Well done. I've never been in that situation, but I can not imagine being able to handle it as gracefully as you did. Like GunDiva, I like to READ. I don't feel the need to have to think hard and try to delve deep into the authors intent-- I want to take a break and ENJOY what they have produced. Your books for me are that perfect breather. Horses, mystery, incredible scenery, and real life events make for a great, relaxing, calming read for me.
I'm sort of wondering why they invited you to their book club meeting in the first place. Sounds like they really just felt like picking apart an author in person. I think you handled it very well under the circumstances. I guess having a sense of humor is key.
I do know that if I had an author whose book I read and who was nice enough to give up a night to come visit me I wouldn't rag her or her book. People don't seem to realize that every word written by an author takes time and talent and it's personal. Just my opinion since I'm not an author.
I do read quite a bit and sometimes it's heavy and sometimes not. I usually have more than one book going at a time. So depending on my mood that's the way I go.
Yeah, this whole dialog sounds woefully familiar, except for it being a different genre from the one I write in. I've not been dissected by book clubs, but I have gotten the judgemental comment or two.
OTOH, one of my DH's clients is a passionate fan. Literate, well-educated...and he likes my stuff. Sweet.
For what it's worth, I think Richard Feynman liked to read mysteries, as have many other prominent scientists and Incredibly Deep Bright People. I know Incredibly Deep Bright People who love them their Harlequin Romances....ultimately, those of us who write MUST write to be entertaining. Otherwise, you don't get read, and isn't that what counts, to be read?
My opinion doesn't really matter here, but I have been TRYING to read Moby Dick for the last 6 months, during which time I HAVE read about 20 other books, including about 4 or 5 of yours.
You have to actually be readable to be liked by me.
Thanks to all of you who commented. I really enjoyed reading your comments. I have to repeat that these book club people were really nice, said that they liked my book, and did not mean to be insulting. Its just that I'm not used to this sort of format--where I sit and listen while people more or less critique my book. It has never come my way before. I'm used to making a (hopefully) entertaining presentation and taking questions. So it kind of caught me off guard.
Like Bill, readability is a huge thing for me in a book. I strive to make my books very readable and hard to put down--I like them to flow smoothly. I don't want the reader to bog down trying to figure out what I meant, or tripping over convoluted syntax or plot details. And I think this is what the one woman was referencing when she said she liked my book because it was "easy."
Busy day ahead here. Thanks again for your comments.
The person who invited you probably could have made it clearer as to the format of the gathering. I spent 10 years as a part of a weekly critique group and my writing benefited immensely from it. Even when someone seems unfamiliar with the style or subject of a piece of writing, it's still good to hear their impressions. That's part of why I blog. I'm learning about such a wide variety of personalities and what they think, which helps me keep the readers in mind when I write something that I intend to publish.
With that said, the biggest criticism I received for my last novel was dead on. I made a mistake and hoped no one would notice, but one reader did and pointed it out. I admit that I've had a bit of writer's block in finishing my current novel, because I'm trying so hard to avoid making that same mistake again.
I loved highfalutin classic literature back in college, but with everyone's busy modern lives, all that most people have time to read are the fast-paced, entertaining "airplane" novels, and I find I'm reading more and more of those as well as writing them. In fact, my favorite place to buy books is airport bookstores.
Have know idea about bookclubs or being a rider. I do know that now having read your entire series, I'm now rereading and enjoying my second time round as much a the first time. I know you don't plan to continue the series but, if you do I'll be reading on for sure.
Thank you, Camryn! I'm so glad you've enjoyed my books. And Nuzzling Muzzles, I think it would have been helpful had I known What the format was to be.
A big thank you to all of you who have read my books. Its OK if you don't think the books are the very best things ever written (I don't either), and I am happy to hear what parts worked and didn't work for you. I'm used to that in a reader review context. It was just kind of a surprise at this gathering. But entertaining overall.
Wow, I must say I never had the book dissected in front of me --awkward. Did they not ask you questions about researching, plotting etc? And had any of them attempted to ever write a novel? Sheesh. You were very polite!
Alison--Yeah, they asked questions. But the talk frequently spun off into discussion--amongst themselves--as to their thoughts and impressions of the book and how it compared to others they had read, which I did find a touch awkward. It was sometimes quite flattering and sometimes not. But, again, entertaining overall.
Thank you for this post, Laura. It's especially timely for me and a group of my local author pals planning to attend the upcoming Big Book Club Getaway at the nearby Mohegan Sun casino to get a handle on that book club market and what they might want.
I suspect what book clubs do with books may be as specific as the individuals inside the groups. An author pals runs a mystery book group up here, so when they picked a book I found interesting, I decided to join them for a night.
The book club and I looked at the same book with different eyes. I read while thinking about themes and how the mystery was structured. Instead, the protagonist's choices - her relationship choices and personal behavior - became a big focus of discussion. Actually, things got heated.
I guess we never predict what aspect of a book might become a springboard for discussions. Thanks again for the article.
I suppose that facing a book club is a bit like assembling a customer panel or inviting mystery shoppers to review a business. Unlike a writers' group they aren't fellow professionals. They don't write books. It's more like asking passengers if they like the bus service or shoppers if they like the store. If they're intelligent you'll get reasoned feedback (after all reading is a matter of choice, unlike commuting or shopping). But they will say things that you, as a career writer, won't necessarily agree with.
I think the big problem for me was the listening to them discuss thing amongst themselves. It was as if I were at a party and people who did not entirely care for the way my child was behaving said, in my hearing, "why would the mother let the child do that?" It is hard to know what to do with that sort of statement that isn't addressed to you.
I would prefer (in the case of both child and book) that the person said directly to me, "I'm wondering why you chose to do this--it left me confused." That I could easily deal with. But sitting next to someone who said to her neighbor, "I was confused when this happened, weren't you?" (leaving me out of the discussion) was awkward.
As a member of a book club, AND someone who very happily read "Slickrock" on her Kindle from start to finish on Saturday afternoon, I have to weigh in. Firstly, let me say I thoroughly enjoyed the book!! Made me want to hop on a plane for the Sierra Nevada (well, maybe not in the winter, LOL). I did some horse camping in WY back in my teens and it brought that all right back.
As far as book clubs, wow... We have never had an author on hand but I would like to think we would be extremely polite and attentive and address questions to him/her, NOT talk in front of them! I can tell, despite your careful assertions that they were nice, that you felt this was rude. Don't blame you a bit. We writers feel extremely possessive about our word-children, and hearing critique in person is tough. Now, if it was Norman Mailer chiming in, well, then we ought to listen, but ordinary citizens? Maybe not so much.
Having said that, I guess it was educational to hear what non-horse people/non-mystery readers (good grief) had to say. I think you're taking all of this with a grain of salt so you'll be just fine! :-)
RiderWriter--So glad you enjoyed Slickrock. And yes, you're right--I did think they should have addressed the comments to me. I'm actually fine with criticism, from anyone, but didn't know what to make of discussion about my book (not addressed to me) going on in front of me.
Laura,I think you were very brave to go and talk about your book at an event like this, as I'm pretty sure you're not an extrovert - I don't think many writers are. If they'd read your book they should have known it was not "their sort of thing", and I think they were just mean to behave in that way.
writing a book is such hard work, and anyone who finishes one deserves respect. People are always intrigued by the writing process; I don't really consider myelf a writer as I've only written one book (well, two books, but the second one has never satisfied me...), but when people hear I've written a book they look at me like I've done something amazing, something out of the ordinary.
It stings when people pooh-poo your books as overly light entertainment; I've had some very close friends say hurtful things about my book ("I read fiction, but I only read good fiction" . Yep! Ouch! I still love this person and know she reads complex literary stuff that I just can't be bothered with, and that what she wanted to say kind of came out wrong!), and despite all the positive feedback I've had, the negative comments tend to be the ones that sit in my stomach and niggle. When I write,I write to entertain, first myself, then others. I'm a very shy person and hate to talk in front of groups; nevertheless I did a reading when my book came out at a bookshop here in Geneva...didn't sleep well for about a week before the event, but got through it fine, and managed to answer questions that sometimes made me feel a little bit like I was under fire. Putting yourself out there is scary!
I love sitcoms, you evil snobby thing, you!!!! But then again, I only watch "good sitcoms"!!!!
Cesca--Yes, I am an evil snob about TV--I guess we all have our "stuff."
I have actually done a LOT of events, and though I'm an introvert, I handle giving presentations easily enough. And I truly didn't mean to make the book club gals sound unkind. They absolutely didn't mean to be. I think they were just very used to discussing books sans author, and hadn't thought about revising their program when the author was actually there. Had I a chance to do it over, I would simply have begun by saying, "I'll do a brief presentation and then take questions," which would have solved the problem.
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