Thursday, May 14, 2009

Reader Eccentricities

In a theoretical literary world, books would be judged solely on such factors as originality, quality of prose, believable characters, drama....

The Gentle Reader gets the point.

In practice, books are filtered through each reader's unique mental baggage, causing potential emotional over- or under-reactions . A parent of a child with Asperger's Syndrome might react to a book like Jennifer Ashley's 'The Madness of Lord Ian MacKenzie ' in a different way than another parent. A person whose family has been touched by suicide might read Nick Hornby's 'A Long Way Down' very differently than someone for whom the issue is distant.

Those are no-brainers - anyone can understand why mileage would vary when a large, real-life issue is involved..

Then we come to the differences in reaction Apprentice Writer calls micro-baggage.

Tiny idiosyncratic things that wield disproportionate power in how the reader sees the book overall. Pet peeves and preferences that act like lightning bolts, instantly upping or downing the general likability. One of the reviewers at 'Dear Author', for example, talked about how a book will start out at a 'B' grade before even any words have been consumed if the heroine is Asian, and then increase or decrease in final mark depending on how the story goes. Apprentice Writer's example of an automatic 'upper' is when the story or parts of it is set in an unusual location.

Then there is the converse. A blogger whose name/site is lost to the sands of time (doesn't that sound much better than 'Apprentice Writer's lacklustre memory'?) wrote about a book starting out with the odds against it when the heroine is described as not only red-headed but temparamental. Too great of a cliche for her to overcome.

Apprentice Writer's hangup - when authors use words incorrectly. These are people, after all, for whom "vocabulary, use of" is the main tool of the trade.

It seems natural to expect that authors would apply words with more skill, grace and knowledge that the average person.

Why then,

- the term 'nauseous' (i.e. nausea causing) used so often in place of 'nauseated' (i.e. suffering from nausea)? Apprentice Writer can't count how many times she's read variations of a character announcing he/she feels nauseous. Why someone - especially a heroine in hot pursuit of a hero, or vice versa - would want people to know they have the power to make others sick to their stomach is a mystery.

- Are there so many authors who seem unaware of the existence of the word 'whom'?

- ....are plurals so difficult? The word 'phenomena' (plural) is used for a single instance of something in many, many books, rather than the singular 'phenomenon'. Granted, this is an exceptional case - but so is cactus/cacti, which most people seem to know, and which would have much less opportunity for book usage than 'phenomenon'. Same applies to millenia (plural)/ millenium (singular).

This is the kind of thing that bats Apprentice Writer out of the story and makes it very difficult to find her way back in. Once incorrect use rears its head, the whole rest of the story is colored. Because: even if the author was unaware - what about the author's authorly critique partners? What about those infamous copy editors publishing houses employ to terrorize manuscripts with their fine-tooth comb?

It is true that these are nitpicky sorts of things; yet over the years it has become clear that they have a uniquely strong effect on this reader. Since she recognizes that no-one is perfect, that no writer can command any language entirely, and that she should not cheat herself out of the benefits that may wait in the rest of the story, Apprentice Writer is trying to dial down the power of these hot-button kinds of words. She hopes self-awareness is the first step to recovery.

Gentle Reader - What about you? Any reading peeves or preferences?


Thomma Lyn said...

Heh, great post about how stories are filtered through an individual's unique mental baggage. Characters and plots and assumptions which make one person squeal with delight will make another person hock a hairball.

And yes, yes on "nauseated" vs. "nauseous" and how often the word "whom" is overlooked. I also grind my teeth at "it's" / "its" and "your" / "you're". And "irregardless" makes my eyes cross.

M. said...

those are good ones, TL. 'Irregardless' makes my teeth hurt. Also, "I could care less" rather than "I couldn't care less". If you could care less - then it's really not that bad, is it?