Readers and Viewers

I’ve been getting a lot of feedback about Warren Lane. While the positive feedback provides much-needed encouragement, the negative feedback has been the most useful. There have been three consistent themes to the negative feedback:

  1. The story isn’t told from the point of view of a single character that I can get behind and root for.
  2. There’s too much dialog.
  3. It’s hard to sympathize with the characters because they’re all messed up and they make bad choices.

When I wrote the book, I followed the structure and principles of drama instead of those of the traditional novel. That means:

  • The story follows a straight chronological timeline.
  • Virtually all of the action takes place over a period of a few days.
  • There’s a tight focus on a limited number of characters.
  • We meet the characters at the moment they are entering their crises.
  • Virtually everything we know about the characters is exposed through dialog. The characters, not the narrator, tell us who they are.

These were all deliberate decisions, and I stuck to them throughout. My interest in the book was in seeing what happens when people with different perspectives and experiences interact, how they affect each other, misunderstand each other and change each other.

I was surprised by the first criticism, that there’s no one character to root for. I had not anticipated that critique because people watch series all the time on HBO and Netflix in which they follow the interactions of a number of characters without there having to be a single central person whose perspective they share or whose fate they are concerned with above all others. In shows like Game of Thrones and The Leftovers, some viewers attach more to one character, some to another.

But people bring different expectations to a novel. Reading is an intimate experience, and many people read specifically to bond with a character, to think and feel what the character thinks and feels, and to take on that character’s perspective as their own. If a reader comes to a novel with this expectation, they can get antsy, bored, or annoyed when their “main character” is off-screen. Even worse, if the perspectives of a number of characters are given equal time and presented with equal weight and sympathy, the reader doesn’t know what to think. The thoughts and feelings of the other characters interfere with the reader’s desire to identify and bond with the primary character they are seeking.

So a number of readers will happily watch drama, on the stage or screen, in which they are partially invested in a number of characters; but they will not put up with this in a novel because it’s not what they came for. Novels are primarily narrative, and good narrative typically employs a voice that conveys a distinct perspective. When a reader expects to find this single voice and single perspective, but finds instead an ensemble piece with multiple, almost equally-weighted perspectives, they will sometimes reject it, because it wasn’t what they ordered. (Most readers will also accept ensemble casts in non-fiction, because when they read about the making of the atomic bomb or the westward expansion of the US in the 19th century, they understand that the events are the focus of the story, and those events involve a great number of players.)

The second criticism, too much dialog, again comes at least in part from a mismatch between what I was trying to do and what readers expect. In the traditional novel, regardless of genre, a narrator fills the reader in on virtually all details of the characters and the story. Of course, there are scenes where the characters interact, and all you get is a description of the setting and the dialog. But most novels are predominantly narrative.

I deliberately chose to have the characters in this book show themselves through dialog, as characters do in drama, because I wanted the reader to have an unmediated view of who they were, what they thought and how they saw the world. The first draft of the novel was almost entirely dialog. Less than 5% of the text in that draft was narrative.

Reading dialog can be taxing for many people, because the reader has to simultaneously hold in their mind the voice, the speech patterns, and the mental and emotional state of each speaker, and switch back and forth between them every few seconds. Actors can do this naturally when they read a script, but many readers, even very good readers, either can’t do this or find it too challenging to maintain for long periods.

You’ll recognize this when you listen to people read aloud. Some read with great feeling, embodying the voice and soul of each character when they speak, while others are wooden, and the way they say the words is at odds with what the words themselves are saying.

In a novel, readers expect a fairly consistent narrative voice. Even if that narrator changes from chapter to chapter, each narrator is fairly consistent, and to a large extent, guides both what you see and how you feel about it. In a script, the actor has to put himself into the character, generating the feeling and voice on his own, through empathy and a projection of himself into the character’s situation and mindset. These are two very different ways of reading, and asking a novel reader to read like an actor puts a burden on them that they don’t expect and may come to resent.

The final criticism of Warren Lane–that the characters are hard to sympathize with because they’re lives are messed up and they make stupid choices–also took me by surprise. Most of the people I grew up with were struggling and lost for years. We drank too much, were too promiscuous, and used drugs to the point of harming or even killing ourselves. But we all saw each other as people who were worth just as much as the shiny straight-A kids who glided through the Ivy League. There was very little judgment in our crowd, because each of us knew that, in our own unique way, we were just as messed up as everyone else.

So characters like Ready (the drinker) and Ella (the promiscuous seeker) were normal to me. When I was writing the book, I was too busy empathizing with those characters to think that anyone would judge them or be turned off by them. Or that some people simply don’t want to read about people who mess up their own lives. Like the friends of my youth, Ready and Ella just needed more time to grow up. They needed bigger mistakes, harsher lessons, and a little more grace to find their way.

While I was writing the book, I had also noted how the people around me reacted to shows like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. My friends and family members watched passively as the characters in those shows did incredibly nasty things to each other. But despite that fact that Tony Soprano made his living extorting, robbing, and killing, or that Walter White made his living poisoning addicts and destroying families and communities, the audience still accepted them and cared about them.

I thought if people were willing to put up with that, they could certainly accept the much tamer things that happen in Warren Lane. But that wasn’t always true. Some of the very people who watched those shows with passive indifference complained about my characters using drugs and sleeping around. Why?

I think part of the reason is that people watch television much more passively than they read books. As Bjork points out in her charming explanation of how television works, people often just absorb what the television projects, without thinking or judging. Before you can really think through a scene and its implications, the next scene is already on screen. And viewers are less involved in creating the reality of film than in creating the reality of literature.

While viewers consume what’s presented on screen, readers recruit their own experience, feelings, and understanding into the process of bringing the page to life. They are highly-engaged co-creators of the experience, which makes them much more involved with the story. Reading doesn’t work when you’re passive. You have to engage.

So while television becomes increasingly over-the-top in depicting action to the audience it has spent years numbing, fiction can still present scenes which, if filmed, would look relatively tame, and yet are still quite powerful and moving, because of the way they invite the reader to invest their own mental and emotional energy. That gives me hope for the written word.

All in all, publishing a novel has been a learning experience, as I expected. In future work, I’ll put that learning to good use.

And thanks to everyone who gave me feedback!

**UPDATE – Feb. 16, 2016 – **I watched LA Confidential with my wife the other night. That’s a brilliant film, and one of the best noirs I’ve ever seen. I saw it when it first came out, and I always admired the film’s carefully constructed and well-executed narrative structure. When it was over, my wife said that in the first quarter of the film, she didn’t know who to follow, or who to identify with. There’s an assumption beneath that statement that this is one person’s story. It’s not. But if you bring that assumption to a film, and that’s not what the film is, you’ll have a hard time getting into it. I never really knew until a few months ago how many people bring that assumption to the works they see and read.