In year nine I wrote a poem. It was chock full of symbolism and meaning. I thought it was pretty straight-forward, the rest of the class, teacher included, stood dumbfounded.
“What was that about? Was that a collection of random words?”
“Well, er, don’t you see? Marching across the clock-face and the bit about the hooked cross and, um, the star twice-threed and… um…”
He crossed his arms and shook his head, “I don’t get it.”
And there they are, those four (and a half) damned little words that strike fear into the heart of the author.
Your artistic integrity demands that you tell a story (or write a poem) the way it is supposed to be written, warts and all. The population in general demands that you keep things palatable and digestible.
I’ve tried to take the high road when writing my books. Rather than beating the audience over the head with the meaning behind the book, I’ve opted to respect that their mind is more than capable of making its own decision. Noble attitude, right?
Well it still sucks when you get told, point blank, “I don’t get it.”
Case in point, The Bullet:
- “There’s not a lot of action, is there?”
- “Dude, it’s a whole book about… a bullet?”
- “Who was the Target? Why didn’t you just tell us who the Target was?”
- “Is there a sequel?”
- “Rifles don’t get mounted on the shoulder, you know…”
And it goes on. Each time I bite my lip and do my best to explain that the story isn’t a war-story, nor is it an historical account, nor do I want to labour the meaning behind it. It’s metaphysical. It’s abstract. The story is what it is, and it becomes what you, the audience, makes of it.
Then there’s the flip-side of the coin. After the looseness of The Bullet, I tightened up the underlying metaphor. Alas, with Atlas, Broken – everyone else seems to get it wrong:
- “It’s a zombie book, right?”
- “It’s a modern-day twist on ‘Atlas Shrugged’?”
- “Are you Henry?”
- “Is this just a self-indulgent platform to complain?”
And I bite my lip and try to explain that it’s a book about depression, and that I could have entitled it “Henry, Depressed” but that would be akin to taking out the Mighty Metaphor Mallet and smacking the reader over the head.
What can I do?
I’m still grappling with that question, and something comes to mind every time I try and figure it out. Writing is art, like sculpture or painting or music or dancing. And you know the thing about art? You don’t have to like it. That’s so important that I’ll say it again. You don’t have to like an artwork.
You don’t have to appreciate it. You don’t have to get it. You don’t have to like it.
BUT, and it’s a big but, there will be some art that you do like, that you do appreciate, that you do get, that just resonates with you.
And if that’s true for you as a member of the audience, it’s true for all members of your audience. Not only that, if your reader sees something else in your book that you didn’t intend, great, that works too.
The thing about The Bullet is that it’s so open ended, that the audience is bound to make its own interpretation, and I have to be able to accept that. And Atlas, Broken is really only going to resonate with those who have experienced depression. To everyone else, it’s a gross-out zombie book.
So what can one do? Sure enough, there isn’t a silver bullet, although I’m tempted to say the following: “Write for your audience.”
If your target audience doesn’t get it, then you’ve failed. If they do, you’ve succeeded! If the wider population doesn’t get it, too bad. You didn’t write it for them, after all. That’s not to say that you can write any old tosh and claim that “It just hasn’t found the right reader yet.”
That’s just being lazy.
What it does mean is that, when you put your final story out there, and strange questions and ideas come flooding back, it’s not the end of the world. Feedback is feedback and, heck, at least people are reading your stuff and, what’s more, they’re thinking it over. That can only be a good thing.