On Reading, Subjectivity and Authenticity

Last week I read a book that blew me away. This only happens a couple of times a year – I read about two novels a week, most of which are wonderful, but those ones that get under your skin and make you think and make you consider your own craft as a writer only come along every now and then.

This isn’t a book review – although The Butterfly Summer is about discovering a history you didn’t know you had, about a house of secrets and about love – and if any of you have read my first book then you know they are subjects close to my heart.

But it’s not really about the subject matter of the book (which was wonderful) or the narrative voice (which was impressive – Harriet Evans has really stepped it up a level with this book and I could not be happier. She’s a favourite of mine anyway but this book is spectacular), rather this is about subjectivity.

One of the things I noticed when I was reading the reviews was that this is a “marmite” book – readers either loved or loathed it, many complaining about the writer’s change in direction or about the dual narrative or the sad subject matter or that it was slow and hard to get into…

Obviously, I couldn’t have disagreed more. And from that grew an epiphany about my own writing, something I need to remember. Perhaps something all writers need to remember.

We cannot please everyone

We can study market trends, we can see what sells and what doesn’t, we can (if we’re lucky enough to have them) ask our agent and our editor for advice. But ultimately however hard we try we will never please everyone. Some people will dislike our books for genuine reasons; books can be triggering and upsetting, sometimes a reader simply doesn’t like the story or characters and that’s OK. There are a handful of people out there who get a kick out of writing bad reviews – and that’s OK too (I guess).

And then there will be people who love our books and rant and rave about them and cannot understand why their friends and acquaintances don’t feel the same.

But while we can’t please everyone, we can please ourselves. This doesn’t mean we should argue with our editors (they do know what they’re doing when it comes to polishing your work for an audience), or switch genre wildly from book to book – but it does mean we should be authentically us, and write the books we want to read, the books that move us, the books that cheer us in or own unique narrative voices. Because in my experience both as a reader and a writer, readers can smell in-authenticity a mile away.

I worry a lot about my little books – I worry that people won’t like them, that they won’t sell, that they don’t fit neatly into a genre (they really don’t – just like their writer!). But when I finished The Butterfly Summer I realised, suddenly, that none of that mattered – because I had to write what I loved. And when other people love it too (and some of them truly will), that’s when the magic happens.

Posted in Blog.