The Litblog Co-op attention for Triangle has been immensely gratifying; thank you, thank you, to everyone involved. It’s an incredibly heady experience when smart, thoughtful people engage with one of my novels. I’ve been trying to think of some fresh ways to talk about this experience, the feelings of being read and also the feelings that are stirred by being misread.
We who write novels sit alone a great deal. We make it all up. We sit alone for so many hours, working the sentences, conjuring with the sensibilities and the narrative strategies, playing and playing with all the elements as they drive the characters through the events of the novel. We write and write and revise and revise until we have taken it as far as we can take it on our own. If we’re lucky, we work with a good editor. If we’re immensely lucky, we work with a great editor, and in that I am beyond immensely lucky, because John Glusman is my editor. And then we revise and revise some more. Then comes publication. The book is in the world.
Then come the reviews. The wise readings, the ridiculous readings. The misreadings. The scolding, reluctant praise. Razor-sharp mixed reviews, empty-headed raves. Crackpot Amazon “reviews.” In print and online, Triangle has received an extraordinary volume of reviews and response, more than any of my previous books (thanks in part to the ever-expanding world of blogging), from wonderfully astute close readings to disdainful and grotesque dismissals.
I read them all. I am energized by the smart reviews, the reviews that make me feel that the writer really, really got it. I want my readers to be moved, and I want them to be entertained, and when a review makes clear that has happened, it’s a triumph. When I come across a random blog featuring a half-baked and clueless takedown, hostile and semi-literate though it may be, it is both irritating and enervating. And I berate myself for caring. And it’s disappointing. I know that I will never write novels that appeal to all readers, and I know that some very smart readers have valid critical things to say. Those reviews are instructive, they make me think past my reflexive defensiveness and I have respect for them. It’s the really silly ones, and -- dare I say it? -- the dumb ones, that wear me down.
For years, certain writers have insisted that they never look at reviews, good or bad. Presumably those same writers these days also never look at websites and blogs. There’s so much more to not read than there used to be. I suppose I admire their discipline and restraint, but I cannot imagine not caring about the world’s response to my work. Even when it makes me want to bang my head on my desk.
All of that said, I have been really blindsided by a certain kind of criticism for Triangle, the criticism specifically leveled at the “unfair” handling of the blinkered, agenda-d hyperfeminist Triangle scholar, Ruth Zion. It’s the damndest thing, seeing blog entries and Amazon reviews that could have been written by Ruth Zion herself. Most recently, a hilariously negative Ruth Zionesque review at Amazon said, “As someone who once did a short stint of historical research into a feminist topic, I winced at the shabby treatment accorded this character by the other characters and the author,” which prompted me to succumb to the temptation of commenting (now that Amazon has added yet another layer of comment opportunity, so the hall of mirrors of consumer product ratings of the reviews can create even more “content” – who are the people “voting” so avidly yes or no on “helpfulness” of reviews?), and I confess that I posted, “Ruth, is that you?”
Even when the negative response to Ruth Zion (she would be self-righteously thrilled to get so much attention) isn’t prompted by identification with her, there has been a pattern of, let’s call it reservation about her, concern that she is too much, unreal, not believable, not like someone you would ever meet, and often this is the sole criticism reserved for the traditional “however” paragraph that usually occurs in the antepenultimate paragraph of a traditional print review that is otherwise a rave. The Ruth Zion criticism has been more than counterbalanced by much Ruth Zion appreciation from all over, which has been immensely gratifying. (My favorite moment at a library event in New Hampshire last month was when a woman whose book group had just discussed Triangle raised her hand during the q and a to say she just wanted to say she loved the way Ruth Zion used the word “irregardless.”)
I am intrigued, however, in a more general way, by the notion that a character in a novel shouldn’t seem too much like a character in a novel. As a self-taught writer who learned by reading, which means that my greatest teachers were probably Edith Wharton (Undine Spragg, anyone?), Philip Roth, Muriel Spark, and Vladimir Nabokov, I know that I have always been especially drawn to the characters who do loom a little large. Isn’t that why we read novels, to encounter people we wouldn’t meet in our ordinary lives? Did this sort of character in fiction go out of fashion and nobody told me? If I had gone to an MFA program, would these new policies on characters in novels, these requirements that all characters must be utterly realistic, devoid of any symptoms of fiction whatsoever, have been spelled out clearly? Anyone want to talk about this?