You’re Reading It Wrong: How to Not Treat Your Readers

First of all, I want to thank Terri Long for the opportunity to participate in BlogFlash 2012. Although I didn’t make it across the finish line — and, in fact, determined that daily, manic blog posting contests are not for me — I had a blast participating.

And now, on with our regular long-form blog posts.

The Problem With “Pearls”

If you’re a fiction writer, you may have caught wind of the controversy over Victoria Foyt’s Save the Pearls. For those of you who don’t know, Save the Pearls is a book about a future where an environmental cataclysm has wiped out most of white humanity, leaving the dark-skinned people (or “Coals” as the book calls them) in charge. In this dark future (get it?), the Coals  ruthlessly oppress the light-skinned “Pearls,” who must endure such routine humiliations as wearing blackface in public. There’s even a book trailer featuring a young blonde girl wearing blackface.

I am not making this up.

Predictably, this met with some controversy. Weird Tales made plans to reprint the opening chapter of Save the Pearls, then quickly reversed that decision when it proved unpopular. Facing a barrage of criticism from the internet, Foyt wrote a defense of her work on Huffington Post that asserted that she wasn’t racist, it was the readers who were racist for making accusations of racism.

Like so many other critics, I haven’t read Save the Pearls, nor do I have any interest in doing so. Even if the premise itself didn’t strike me as ill-advised and problematic, it still wouldn’t be my thing.

I won’t go into exhaustive detail about how wrong-headed I think this concept is — although I will say that “what if black people were oppressing everybody and the white women were super-afraid because they weren’t in charge anymore?” is not what I call meaningful satire or social criticism. It’s runaway privilege masquerading as racial sensitivity, and Foyt should have known better. Maybe there’s something brilliant in Save the Pearls that saves the core idea from itself — but I doubt it. At best, this is like the kind of idea one should sit down and think twice about before pursuing.

However, I do want to take a moment to talk about Foyt’s reaction, which I think is a textbook example of how not to deal with your audience. Foyt’s defense on HuffPo basically amounts to “you’re reading it wrong,” telling her audience that if they have a problem with her work, that’s only because they don’t understand it.

Readers with long memories might recall Anne Rice’s meltdown on Amazon a few years back, in which she called her own readers big dummy doo-doo heads for blasting Blood Canticle, capping it off with rating her own book five stars. (The review was later pulled by Amazon, but replaced by a fan of her diatribe.) Rice went one step further, saying that she had outgrown her editors: “I have no intention of allowing any editor ever to distort, cut, or otherwise mutilate sentences that I have edited and re-edited, and organized and polished myself… for me, novel writing is a virtuoso performance. It is not a collaborative art.” (Incidentally, the number one criticism of Blood Canticle? “Needed an editor.”)

Here’s why this kind of thing generally doesn’t work in your favor.

You don’t get to decide how readers react to your work.

Once you finish a book and put it out there, it pretty much has to speak for itself. You don’t get to tell your readers how they’re allowed to interpret it, or how to feel about it. If they find what you write offensive or objectionable, that’s their right.

This may come back to bite me someday, but I believe that once you release a creative work into the wild, to some degree, it belongs to your audience. George Lucas has taken no small amount of static over fiddling with his beloved movies long after fans began to think of it as their own. Lecturing your readers on how they’re supposed to react — what they are and aren’t supposed to like — will do nothing but alienate people and undermine your credibility.

Your readers are smart.

Not every criticism is valid, or even worthwhile. Yes, some critics will willfully misinterpret your work because they want a good excuse to hate on something. But readers, and genre fans in particular, aren’t all dunces with no sense of subtlety or detail. If anything, the most hardcore fans are often  incredibly detail-oriented, analyzing every last paragraph for weaknesses, like a sapper preparing to lay siege to a fortress. If smart, educated people gather in force to tell you in detail why your work is problematic, maybe it’s not because they lack the brainpower to comprehend your awesomeness.

Also, if you must rail against your own readers for daring to question your work, don’t end your defense with “well, my book won a bunch of awards, and [name-dropped celebrity] said it was good, so clearly I’m right and you’re wrong.”  That’s pure clown shoes.

If your book requires a separate, detailed explanation of its own premise, you may have a problem.

After the opening salvo of  “no, you’re the racist,” Foyt’s article moves into a defensive recap of her book, explaining why all the problems in the book aren’t actually problems. You say “coal” is an actual racial slur against blacks? No, see, that doesn’t matter because “coal has energy, fire, and real value,” and that exempts me from having to do any historical research. You say the title of the book loosely translates as Save the White People? No, it’s okay because I’m being provocative. You say that “confronting racism” by making it all about the poor white people being oppressed is incredibly problematic? Well… um… provocative! And you’re dumb and racist!

I’m not making the case that fiction should be so watered-down and easily digestible that it will offend no one — but if you go to this level of detail to explain why people have no right to be offended and why you’re not a huge racist, you might want to take a look at your elevator pitch and rethink it  — or maybe come to grips with the realization that you don’t have the chops to pull off a brilliant racial satire.

Don’t call your readers racists, and don’t obliquely compare them to McCarthy.

Foyt responded to criticisms of her work by saying “this kind of blind attack is exactly what creates racism or condemned many progressives as communists in the Fifties.” Attempting to martyr yourself with this kind of thing will win you exactly no points with anyone. Go ahead and feel like a persecuted outsider all you like, middle-class white lady, and feel free to compare your critics to blacklisting scaremongers from a bygone racist era — but don’t expect your readers to swallow that kind of insult and pick up anything you write ever again.

What do you think? Am I being too hard on Foyt? Not hard enough? Sound off in the comments. 

  • Joni

    Not having read her book, naturally I’m making assumptions… but it sure comes across as being some sort of fevered, privilege-loss-nightmare that really only a certain portion of the population could think up. I don’t think you’re being too hard on her at all. I think she’s got some issues and probably got defensive because she can see the truth in the criticisms.

    • I’m sure it can be very tough to become the subject of public opprobrium such as she has. But I think her reaction is only going to make things worse. Thanks for the comment!

  • It sounds like an idea that just hasn’t been researched well enough and possibly an author not strong enough to make it work. I read ‘Noughts and Crosses’ by Malorie Blackman, a series of books described as a thriller set in a racist dystopia, and she pulled it off. She didn’t fall back on crude stereotypes and ideas. May not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I enjoyed them, however I don’t plan on reading Foyt’s book, doesn’t appeal at all from the reviews etc I’ve read! It does sound as if it’s a desperate ‘save the poor little white girl’ type of thing…
    Btw the author definitely comes across as desperate from the huge amount of ‘praise’ she’s had put on the book’s Amazon page!

    • Agreed, Lisa. She definitely comes off a little entitled. Which I guess is fine, but it doesn’t really work in her favor, in my opinion. I think this kind of book is very hard to pull off — I sure wouldn’t want to try it.

  • Haven’t read it either, so here’s another ill-informed opinion. However, what it sounds like is early sci-fi (such as some ST:TOS episodes, or some Twilight Zone, or stuff from the 50’s), where merely asking the question about a reverse-racial society qualified as a possibly interesting challenge of the status quo. For the time (and that’s a key), asking the question was relevant and important, and a crucial component of speculative fiction. However, those days are long gone. We’re well past the TOS episode with the people who were two different skin tones, or in need of a retelling of the story of the Sneetches. Writing like that in 2012 is not only something that will open the door to charges of racism, but it’s weak and lazy. I’m also not going to write the story of two star-crossed lovers from feuding families and think I’m breaking new ground. You don’t need to revolutionize human thought with every story, but have something new to say if you want me to think your story is worth reading.

    I couldn’t agree more with your points about not insulting readers. This goes for many things I run into – in sports, you’ll see coaches defending their crappy decision-making by basically saying “you don’t understand the game enough to know what’s going on.” As with genre fiction, that’s absurd – I know people that record games and rewatch them numerous times, studying the film as if they were employed by the team. Suggesting that decades of that can’t prepare you to know what’s going on is insulting. It’s also tied in to that whole thing where we can’t decide for someone else if they should be offended by what we say. We’re not in their head, so suggesting that our individual version of the universe is, well, universal, is dumb.

  • Very well said, Dan.

  • Katie

    Hey there. I came across your blog from Eva Rieder’s page. It’s great–I will be following. I’ve actually never heard of this book. The premise sounds interesting, but slightly contrived. Whether or not it makes for a good story, who knows.

    I agree when you say that once an author has put his/her stuff out there, it really no longer belongs to him/her. The author ‘owns’ the book during its gestation, but after that…well, like child going to kindergarten, it gets adopted by the world. The author loses all control.

    • Thank you, Katie! I hope you’ll stick around despite my hiatus. And yes, when we release our work into the wild, that’s kind of it.

  • Not to defend her, but my guess is her original idea was to write a piece of speculative fiction where she questioned: what if we lived in an alternate universe where black and white were flipped? However, given the controversy of the issue and the horrible stains it’s left on the past, to approach something like this would require extreme sensitivity, and possibly another color, like blue (oh, wait, that’s Avatar). But with the way she reacted to it, it just adds a nice thick layer to it which clearly states she wasn’t ready to go through with this, and should not have attempted it. We live, we learn, we’re human. Someone has to make a mistake so others don’t.

    I think you’re right that readers can read it how they like, and if there are implications in there that can make it extremely controversial, the author should acknowledge that they are a product of their work and there is nothing “wrong” about an interpretation.

    • This is a great comment, Margaret, and I’m sorry I didn’t get to it before now. I think you make a good point — it’s not so much that she attempted the work in the first place, but rather that she insists readers interpret it according to her wishes. That’s not going to fly.

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