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!


Ben Duffy said...

Well said! I came to The Penal Colony as a paperback reader in the 1990s, before the real explosion of the internet, and anyone I knew who had read the book was someone to whom I had loaned my own copy. Therefore, for the first decade I knew and enjoyed The Penal Colony, I did so in something of a vacuum, without easy access to hundreds of other people's opinions on the book, as I would today.

So when I finally came to sites like Goodreads and Amazon, I was a bit surprised to find a number of people accusing the author of being a bigot and homophobe. "Well no, it's a character," I thought, "the protagonist, but a character nonetheless. Might as well accuse Thomas Harris of being a cannibal!" Not to mention, Routledge is something of a small-minded git in the beginning, and much of the theme of the book is about him outgrowing that, becoming a more empathetic, less judgmental person.

As a side note, I've loved the ending of The Penal Colony since the first time I read it. Warm, bright, hopeful, and just a touch of closure without beating things to death or insulting my imagination with any Rowling-esque "Fifteen Years Later" epilogues. Anything more would have been less, if you know what I mean.

Richard Herley said...

Thanks, Ben -- your $50 is in the post!


Catana/Sylvie Mac said...

I recently read The Penal Colony for the second time, and found it just as fascinating as the first time. I suppose the ending was somewhat abrupt, but the story had been told. Writing more would have started another story.

If readers' ignorance is the reason for their failure to comprehend, then the author isn't at fault. If Americans find The Penal Colony difficult, I hate to think what their reaction to The Tide Mill would be. Yet, I found it so beautiful that even the parts that were quite technical and hard to follow didn't stop me from reading. And I didn't hesitate to leave reviews on Amazon and Goodreads.

Fifty or sixty years ago, your books would have recieved rave reviews and you would have been considered one of your generation's top authors (this may be true in Great Britain, but I'm American and I don't even bother to follow professional reviewers any more.) Today, declining literacy means that formulaic mainstream writing shoves books like yours into the background. I hope you'll continue to write for those of us who appreciate the worlds you create.

Richard Herley said...

Sylvie, thank you for your encouragement and long-term support. There are plenty of writers of my generation who fell by the wayside, victims of the neglect and incompetence of the publishing industry. I even gave up myself at one point, and the fact that I'm still at it today is both counter-intuitive and a testament to pigheadedness. I'm more interested in the work than the sales, which is probably just as well. As long as the ideas last, I'll keep putting them down in words.

pete whitfield said...

I imagine all creatives continually question their art and craft, and seek ways to develop and improve. But I still don't think any criticism of Penal Colony will sway my opinion that it is a thoroughly excellent read! I loved the characterization and the pace, including the sudden jumps in time at places.
Being able to feedback to an author (here and on Amazon et al) can only cement the relationship between reader and writer. I'm reading The Drowning now - not a book I would have chosen from its description but loving it just the same!

Glostermeteor said...

Hi Richard,

I just wanted to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the Penal Colony. I was only 3 years old when you first published it, and the Kindle has allowed me to read books that I simply would not encounter on the book shelves of Waterstones or Smiths. I found the book very well written and very vivid, but at the same time absolutely terrifying. I hope we as a society never implement a system like that. As recognition of your generosity for giving out the Penal Colony for free, I have just bought Refuge and The Drowning

Chris said...

Hi Richard

I was one of the people who expressed disappointment at the suddenness of the ending. In my case it was for exactly the reason that you've surmised; I wanted more. I was so taken with the book; it had good characterisation, a strong storyline, and in addition was beautifully written.

It was a revelation to me that such good writing was being made freely available. I appreciate of course, that authors giving their books away is a marketing exercise, but nonetheless it was still welcomed.

I have downloaded The Drowning and look forward to reading it. I will leave a review when done and would encourage others to do likewise.

Richard Herley said...

@Glostermeteor -- thanks for the praise, always eagerly believed :-)

@Chris -- thank you, and good luck with your own book!