Writers shouldn’t read reviews of their work.
It’s excellent advice. It’s also incredibly difficult to stick to when you see that someone has written a new review. I suspect it’s even harder for new writers than it is for the ones who are old hands at this. Curiosity can just get too much. Because writers thrive on feedback too. And I care what my readers think…I want to listen, to learn, to improve…I don’t want to to disappoint people who do me the honour of buying and reading my book.
So I just read a reader’s review of my first novel, Truths (published April 2010 from Bold Strokes Books), on Amazon.com (you can read the review here). It’s mostly a very good review and I’m very grateful indeed to the lady called Beth from LA who wrote it and gave me 4 stars out of 5 and said I was a “promising” writer. However, in her last paragraph, she describes my novel as “predictable”.
Which got me thinking. I’m not going to debate the question of Truths being predictable. I guess that depends very much on each individual reader. I’ve had other readers tell me that certain aspects of the way the novel concludes took them by surprise. And, honestly, I would agree that some parts of the book are predictable. You know–more or less–how it’s going to turn out, from at least half way through.
That’s not really what I’ve been thinking about. What I’ve been debating with myself is this: Is “predictable” necessarily a bad thing for a novel to be?
I constantly read reviews on the backs of books and in the front matter proclaiming how “unexpected” certain plot twists were…how wonderful it is that the reader is kept guessing…how shocking the ending of a novel is…how clever for being so surprising. Clearly readers–at least those who write reviews considered worthy of reprinting–enjoy a novel that twists and turns and takes them by surprise. I’ve enjoyed novels like that myself. One of the best is Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith. The twists in that novel are real shocks when they come and it’s a delight to read.
But sometimes I like the comfort of a “predictable” read too. Fingersmith isn’t my favourite of Waters’s books precisely because the twists startle me so much. I don’t necessarily mean I need a simple story. I don’t mean one without any twists or unexpected happenings at all. But isn’t it sometimes nice to know what’s going to happen? To get the happy ending you’re hoping for? It’s comfortable and unchallenging perhaps. But does a book always have to be a challenge? Does it always have to shake you up to be a good read? Some of the classics of literature are really predictable. I knew Lizzie Bennett and Mr. Darcy were going to get together from the time they danced together at the Netherfield ball. Jane Eyre was going to end up in the arms of Mr. Rochester from the moment they met on the road to Thornfield. The events of the novel–a younger sister’s elopment or a mad wife in the attic–we can’t forsee. But we know how we want the novel to end…and it’s a good feeling when we get what we want.
I’m not comparing myself as a writer with Austen and Bronte. I’m actually talking about my experience as a reader. I’m not a fan of most mystery fiction or crime fiction because most of it goes out of its way to keep me guessing. Sometimes it feels like a plot twists just for the sake of it. Sometimes I don’t want to be a detective. I just want some entertainment. That doesn’t mean it can’t be thought provoking or touch my heart. It can be intelligent and unusual. It can be educational and stimulating. It just means I don’t always need to be surprised to enjoy a good read. A plot can keep me guessing what I’m going to discover in the next chapter, even when I sense I know where those chapters are leading to.
Knowing the destination doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the journey.