*Oh boy is this true. Sometimes radically different books. I’ve been shocked to find that AFGM is a feminist opus, or DST a communist paean. (Admittedly that one, shared with a friend, almost caused his co-workers to send for the men in white coats, as it kept him suddenly breaking into cackle for weeks.)*
The ‘Rashomon effect’ in book readers – Nitay Arbel
Writing and publishing my first novel (“On Different Strings”) was a learning experience in many ways. One that especially struck this “writer’s apprentice” here was: how X people can read the same book — yet afterward, all have read a slightly different book.
I have encountered a similar phenomenon in my day job as a scientific writer/editor. With a long scholarly essay or scientific paper, it is not unusual to discuss it with people afterwards and find one’s head scratching about why they are taking away a completely different — or even opposite — message than you did. Sure, some of this can be ascribed to different degrees of familiarity with the paper’s academic subject — but even among mavens on that very subject, guru A may take away a different message than guru B.
Now for “rapid communications” that are very short and focused on one specific point, generally this happens much less, and those who have read the paper are much more likely remember the same basic take-home message.
Methinks these are simply the limits of human cognition at work. Remembering every major point from a 50-page academic paper (a mini-dissertation, really), for an insider, is probably similar to remembering every character and plot twist of a 300-page novel for a voracious reader. Both the researcher and the bibliovore are reading so many other such works that brain storage, and especially brain indexing space, gets to be at a premium.
So what is somebody reading your book going to remember? Mind you, not somebody who’s “with their nose on the subject” like your editor. It’s probably what they love or hate about the book, but for some reason sticks out in their brains. And guess what: these are often the things — positive and negative — you see showing up in reviews — or in private reader comments.
If a character is one they find particularly sympathetic — or particularly annoying — they will remember it.
If some aspect of the structure or writing is unfamiliar or unexpected to them, that will stick out on their memory of it. Somebody who’s been brought up with third-person omniscient and more-or-less linear writing and suddenly sees a first-person book and/or one with a nonlinear structure for the first time may be annoyed or delighted — but they’ll remember that aspect.
If some genre convention is violated, aficionados of that genre may feel cheated — or, if they’re eclectic readers to begin with, they may actually find this refreshing.
If you introduce some setting or tech element that is unusual to the reader, that’s what they will remember.
Some specific examples, mostly taken from my “apprentice novel” and reader responses.
One would normally try hard to make characters speak like people with their specific backstories might. The price one pays for that is, for instance: anybody who’s never spent time in academia might think my professors are annoyingly wordy and formal in their speech, while anybody who’s never lived in the Deep South might similarly raise eyebrows at the most “Texan” of my characters (the protagonist’s mother). More action-oriented novels might offend some readers through the salty speech of military or law enforcement characters — which is quite familiar to anybody who’s worn these uniforms, or whose loved ones have. (For this specific thing, bowdlerization may offer a compromise here between authentic grit and keeping things somewhat PG-friendly.)
Concerning conventions: I felt I was laying on the lovey-dovey romantic stuff too thick, while one romance novel reviewer wrote me privately I hadn’t laid it on thick enough! I was agonizing over one, veiled, love-making scene in my novel — until I read a few “contemporary romances” and was startled by how many graphic sex scenes they contained. (I nearly cut it out, then left it in after both editors assured me it was tasteful and moved the story forward.) Guess what: precisely that earned me praise from one reviewer. A third reviewer used the term “genre-busting love story” in saying it wasn’t a conventional romance at all.
Concerning characters: I recast my antagonist from an antipathetic character into a much more complex, conflicted persona, and offloaded some of the worst misery she inflicted on the protagonists onto a secondary character. The new antagonist stood out positively for several, while the “throwaway villain” apparently could have done with adding more depth.
And all of us have had moments where one encounters real-life characters that make one go: “if I put somebody like that one in a novel, editors would tell me this one is cartoonish and over the top”.
Concerning settings and tech: at times, there can be a thin line between creating authenticity and “info-dumping” or “geeking for the sake of geeking”. I was not a bit worried about whether I’d overdone all the music (theory and technique) stuff in my book: to my surprise, neither editor told me to tone this down, and I have received only positive comments about that aspect.
And of course, if some point of view expressed by a character — even in passing — particularly catches the attention of a reader, that may affect their entire impression of the book. (All too many readers assume points of view expressed by the main characters must be shared by the author.)
Finally, all of the above may cause aspects that ‘stick out’ less to a reader either way to be forgotten or misremembered.
At the end of the day, you end up with a sort of ‘Rashomon effect’ among your readers: everybody seems to have read a slightly (or not so slightly) different novel, because of what crosses the ‘observation and remembrance threshold’ or fails to do so.