The holidays are still swirling, my novel, ALICE I HAVE BEEN, just released in paperback, and I may have misplaced the cat in all the holiday wrapping paper. So I'm rerunning a recent blog that aired on the Huffington Post, and if you've already read it, I apologize. If you haven't, please enjoy. And in the comments, tell me what books you got for Christmas, and I'll choose, at random, one poster who will receive a signed copy of the hardcover of ALICE I HAVE BEEN. (I'll get things rolling - I received THE CHILDREN'S BOOK by A.S. Byatt, and CLEOPATRA, A LIFE by Stacy Schiff.)
And have a wonderful, book-filled New Year!
A novelist friend recently had an argument with a reader concerning a certain passage in his book. This reader quoted actual sentences, adamant that they were on the page—to the great surprise of the author. Who didn’t remember having written them and who, when he went back to check, discovered that he hadn’t.
But that didn’t sway the reader. This person knew what he had read, and—all evidence to the contrary—couldn’t be convinced otherwise.
This is something to which I can relate.
In the year since ALICE I HAVE BEEN was published, I have learned many things, insightful things, about people and books and relationships and perceptions. But perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that when you write about certain subjects—such as the relationship between a man and a little girl—many people will bring their own perceptions to the subject, and see things on the page that you simply didn’t write. And you’ll never be able to convince them otherwise.
Despite what a few readers have claimed, I did not write a book about a predator and a victim. I wrote about the complex relationship between an artist and a muse, and the mystery surrounding the end of this relationship, and its aftermath. I wrote a tragic love story – tragic in that this relationship occurred at the wrong time in the lives of both Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, and haunted them forever after. But there was beauty in it, too, because it gave the world Wonderland.
I did not write about any physical or sexual relationship between the two. Not at all. Nothing on the page reflects that. Did I choose language, perhaps, meant to provoke discussion? Yes. Did I choose to write opaquely about intent, leaving the reader to imagine what was going on in the minds of all involved? Yes. I wanted to write a story that provoked discussion and boy, has that proven to be the case!
But I have encountered readers who insist I wrote physical details that simply are not on the page. Who have insisted that the confused yearnings I gave Alice Liddell are inappropriate for a child of seven. Yes, they would be—but in my novel, when she experiences them, she’s a pre-adolescent eleven-year-old, at a time when a girl could be legally wed at twelve.
Yet people still insist otherwise.
Over time, instead of taking offense or expending energy going through the book, line-by-line, to refute those who insist, I’ve learned to let it go. And I have a better understanding that when it comes to fiction, you can’t predict how people will react, especially to certain subjects.
We all know that taste is subjective; intent is, as well. And that’s the wonderful thing, really, about literature. It’s a conversation between author and reader; a conversation during which the author can only speak through the words on the page, while the reader can parse and argue and rail, or laugh and cry and embrace. Rarely does —or should—the author have a chance to steer that conversation directly.
Still, it’s a conversation, it’s an engagement consisting of emotion and passion, good and bad—but really, mostly good.
This is what I’ve come to understand. Just as they say bad publicity is better than no publicity, I’ll add that a contentious conversation is better than no conversation. As an author, I want people to react passionately to what I’ve written, not shrug or forget about it or worse, ignore it all together.
If they react in ways I didn’t absolutely intend, or see things I didn’t absolutely write, well—in a way, that means I’ve done my job.
Once we write, once we send our words out into the world, we cannot direct their journey. They will be embraced, loved, cared for; they will be rejected, disparaged, misunderstood. Just like people, actually, and if we’ve done our job well, that’s what our characters become. Living, breathing people whose actions, whose behaviors are complex, confusing, and not easily categorized.
Words on the page are given life not only by those who write them, but by those who read them. As authors, we need to understand that—and embrace it. The conversation between us and our readers cannot—should not—be one-sided.
So even though I still sometimes sigh when a reader insists I’ve written something that I know, in my heart, I absolutely did not, I don’t argue. Instead, I remind myself how very, very lucky I am that people are reading my book and talking about it.
For, to quote Lewis Carroll himself, “ ‘What is the point of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations?’ ”
Melanie Benjamin is the author of ALICE I HAVE BEEN, the story of Alice Liddell, the inspiration for ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND. It's now available in paperback. Her second historical novel, THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MRS. TOM THUMB, will be published by Random House in July 2011. Melanie also blogs at the Huffington Post; you can visit her at her website at www.melaniebenjamin.com.