Monday Motivation: Make enemies, win wars

 In Monday Motivation, Richard Benyon's blog

I’m going to get to my subject today in a roundabout way, if you don’t mind. Sometimes the route you take to your destination is as interesting as the destination.

My step-daughter’s about to launch herself into a long essay about the book on which the movie Arrival was based. It’s the title story in a collection called Story of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. The story concerns a woman who, through a process too intricate to describe here, learns an alien – that is, extra-terrestrial – language that is structured in such a way that it enables her to remember the future…

Well, we got to talking about the theme, and specifically a question provoked by the plot of the story. What would be the effect on your relationship, we asked, if you knew, in advance, the date of the death of someone you loved dearly? The story proceeds on the assumption that this foreknowledge, this memory, does not give you the power to change the future. (Which suggests that we live in an immutably deterministic universe – but that’s another, much bigger, question.)

Would your foreknowledge affect your relationship? Would it deepen it? Would it make life intolerable? Would you tell him about his date with death? Would keeping that secret knowledge poison your relationship?

Our discussion took place the day before I stumbled on another more recent book, The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin. The tagline of that novel is: If you knew the date of your death, how would you live? Reading that, I immediately wondered whether it would provide any insights that my step-daughter might find useful, since, in a way, it seemed to cover the same territory.

Now, this isn’t a discussion of the book, which I haven’t yet read (although I think I may have pressed the BUY button on my Kindle)*, but about an idea that struck me while I was reading the various Goodreads’ reviews of it.

Here’s what one reader said, under the heading, Disappointing and Boring: “I found the idea behind the novel interesting but was very disappointed when I started reading it. I didn’t like the style. Some less important areas were laboured while the vital areas were skimmed over. A boring and unfulfilling read.”

Mmm. Sounds like a real downer.

But then this is what the next reviewer wrote: “Loved everything about this book. Once the scene was set at the beginning and I knew what the premise was, you hoped that each of the siblings would be fine. The book takes you through a full range of emotions. Could not put it down and read this in one sitting. Needless to say, nothing else got done today.” Her heading: Absolutely brilliant.

So I skimmed the rest of the reviews, and they ranged from one star (Don’t bother) to a great many five stars (Wonderful; I loved The Immortalists; Brilliant literary fiction with a great premise and wonderful characters etc etc etc). To be fair, the overwhelming consensus was that The Immortalists offers readers a really good experience.

My question: How is it possible for different readers to respond so differently to the same text? I can’t imagine the writer of the Disappointing and Boring review, and the writer of any one of the five star reviews (of which there were many), agreeing on anything about the book.

So what is it that turns one reader off, and triggers transports of delight in another?

Consider the very start of The Immortalists:

“Varya is thirteen.

“New to her are three more inches of height and the dark patch of fur between her legs. Her breasts are palm sized, her nipples pink dimes. Her hair is waist length and medium brown – not the black of her brother Daniel’s or Simon’s lemon curls, not Klara’s glint of bronze. In the morning, she plaits it in two French braids; she likes the way they whisk her waist, like horses’ tails. Her tiny nose is no one’s, or so she thinks. By twenty, it will have risen to assume its full, hawkish majesty: her mother’s nose. But not yet.”

I read on, obviously, but even in this first paragraph and a bit, I found myself intrigued, not by what I learned so much as by how I learned it. What did I immediately respond so positively to here? The directness of the tone. The sense of the young girl’s vulnerability.

I liked the sly, but admiring, authorial voice that intruded at the end of the paragraph. This girl might be just thirteen now, and tender, and innocent, but she will be strong, even majestic by the time she’s twenty.

But there will, of course, be readers who find the bluntness of the revelations, right up here before we know the character, a little off-putting. Perhaps that intrusion throws them. (What the hell is the author doing rummaging about in his story?!)

But pallid this is not. Pallid doesn’t risk offending anyone. Powerful will. Distinctive will. Pallid won’t hurt you, but it won’t do you much good either. Those who heed the call of the voiceless book, will be few in number and without influence in the world. Powerful will win you followers, it’ll gain you allies. You’ll recruit some enemies, it’s true – but also an army of readers.

Happy writing,

Richard

* I have now pressed the BUY button.

Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog ‘Writing Secrets: Remember the flow.

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