6 February 2012
Learning from readers
There are currently 192 reviews of The Penal Colony at amazon.co.uk and 70 at amazon.com: that ebook is less downloaded in the United States, maybe because the cultural references pass American readers by. Many of the reviews, I’m relieved to say, are positive. Some of the exceptions are from readers who either haven’t finished the book or who haven’t understood what it is about.
Failure of comprehension is largely the author’s fault, but reading novels is a skill that must be acquired. The level to which public education has sunk, and the hegemony of the visual as a medium of entertainment, have produced a group of young people who have not been exposed to enough written fiction to know how to react to it. They suppose that if an opinion is expressed on the page, it must be the author’s. They have not learned to take a broad view, to wait and see what happens and form a judgement accordingly, but are instead blown about from scene to scene by every puff of wind. Nor have they any awareness of the resonances and undercurrents which make a piece of writing come alive.
The central driver of The Penal Colony is the change brought about in its protagonist by his experience on the island. He arrives with a fairly complete set of prejudices and loses them all. Thus I have been castigated as a bigot, a racist and a homophobe. Attitudes towards homosexuality, including my own, were less sympathetic in the 1980s (the book was drafted in 1985-6). This was the time of the AIDS scare, and there were controversies about homosexuality in the armed forces which I thought applicable to the social structure of the community in which my hero ends up. The Penal Colony is a story of its time and should be read as such.
Most reviews, however, should by no means be disregarded, even though some of the opinions may seem unreasonable to the author. The act of reading is a collaboration. If it fails in any consistent way there is something wrong with the book. A number of reviewers have expressed their dissatisfaction with the ending. They say it is too abrupt, and would like to know what else happens to the main characters. They accuse me of having got bored with the project, which was not the case.
My take on the story was that it should cover the protagonist’s time on the island. It begins with him waking up there and effectively ends with his departure. The brief final chapter was intended merely to put a cap on things and point the way to the future. Not a single professional reviewer complained about its brevity: but then professionals are expert readers fully versed in the language of fiction.
An author with any sense will take far more notice of the non-professionals – if he wants to be read, they are the people he must please. Disappointment about the ending is flattering, because it suggests that those readers who complain care about the characters. It is also sobering, because it reveals a lack of skill on my part. I am coming to the end of drafting a new book. The closing chapters are more explicit than I’d planned: I have heeded my critics’ advice.
Professional reviewers are part of the gatekeeping apparatus that interposes itself between writer and reader. Their opinions are often partial, and are primarily filler between the ads on the literary pages. Of course, you also have to read amateur reviews with a bit of scepticism, since some of them are planted by shills or the author in person, but by and large the amateur reviewer has no axe to grind. His or her review is likely to be honest, prompted by a sincere desire to share pleasure or warn others of trash.
This is one aspect of the ebook revolution which is not often trumpeted, but it should be. In the past all one got was the odd fan-letter forwarded (or not) by the publisher, and fan-letters are useless as a critical tool. Direct access to the opinions of the reader is an incredible gift for the author, and breaks down yet further the barrier between them. So please don’t hold back if you’re minded to post an opinion about any ebook you’ve read – you’ll be doing everyone an excellent turn!