The Best Feedback

I realize that I have been glib about the release of The Other. This is in intentional. It’s not that I’m ashamed of my first new novel in five years. Far from it. I’m aware of both its merits and its faults. It is certainly novel, in the sense of the adjective. One of my fears as a writer is that I might one day fall into repetition, merely regurgitating patterns ad nauseum, writing for the sake of tapping out keystrokes, the form without the substance. Despite The Other being, in some senses, a successor to Alterra (it is not a sequel), The Other does achieve something new.

No, the reason I’ve been quiet is that I don’t want this novel to get that much attention. I set out to capture our political moment in science fiction form, and I succeeded in that, but in doing so, I’m fairly certain I’ve crafted a work that will draw ire from my contemporaries. Members of both the political left and right will find reason to believe that I am pushing the “agenda” of the “other side.” Funny, as the politicization of otherness is kind of what the novel is actually about.

Once again, I’m quite glad to be in the position I am in, self-publishing and doing all my own editing and layouts, as taxing as that is, because it means I have the freedom to pursue my intellectual and philosophical interests wherever they may lead me, even if they aren’t even remotely marketable, and even if they grate against ingrained ideologies.

It also means that I am free to ignore bad feedback, which I have noticed that there is a lot of. I just recently heard from a reader about the supposed importance of “hooks.” My former toxic writing group first introduced me to this concept eight years ago. The idea is that a chunk of writing should begin with something exciting, something to create conflict, or something that sets up a mystery. Something “engaging.” The idea is that a reader will not want to continue reading unless this “compelling something” is present.

The length of text that this mandate applies to seems to be shrinking over time. When I attended my toxic writing group, the hook was supposedly a one-time necessity at the beginning of a novel, novella, or short story. More recently, I have seen it discussed as being a required component for every section of a novel, or even every chapter.

I do not want readers who need hooks in order to keep paying attention.

Do you know what I do when I’m reading something and I find my attention straying? I back up a paragraph or two and I force myself to pay attention this time.

Real damage is done to both readers and writers in catering to the idea of hooks. Readers become trained to believe that whenever their attention strays from a text, its the fault of the text or the writer, rather than them for not paying attention. When writers fall into the trap thinking that their works need hooks, then they end up catering to forces that are pushing all of writing into one homogeneous mass. They end up throwing out the possibility of exploring ideas and concepts in order to pander to intellectual weakness, or to push salable ideologies rather than explore the truth of the human condition.

The Other is not without its exciting moments. I am fully aware of the fact that I have included one rather large explosion, and, on another occasion, an instance of mass hysteria resulting in a shoot out. I do not want a world where all events of all novels are physically droll and emotionally sterile. It is fine for a novel to have exciting moments, but those moments should serve the novel’s core substance; they should reinforce its point. A hook’s only purpose is to pander to an audience.

As a writer, I feel responsible for crafting a work that is as intellectually challenging as I can make it. As such, I require that my readers be up to the challenge of paying careful attention and thinking. I have no need for readers who merely want exciting images projected into their brains. Our society provides media much more effective at that than writing, anyway.

The best critical feedback I have ever received has been constructed along these lines: “It seems you intended to do A, but did you notice, that because of this particular construction, you in fact had an effect of B.” Sadly, this form of feedback is exceedingly rare. More often it’s: “Do more A, because everything other than that is boring.”

I tolerated this to a certain degree in the past. The only response I can muster in the present is: “no way.”