The ‘Rashomon effect’ in book readers – Nitay Arbel

*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.

56 thoughts on “The ‘Rashomon effect’ in book readers – Nitay Arbel

  1. You also have an expectation of sameness from readers of a series. I got a comment from a reader that the 8th novel into a series no longer had the conflict and sharp black and white contest between rivals that my first novel about revolution had.
    Well, yes…revolutions shouldn’t last forever. When they do it’s like Cuba, where the revolutionary wins, but has no idea how to govern.
    A constant state of revolution is a very sad way to live. You can export it and cause trouble for others, or create a repressive state seeing enemies everywhere. Pretty soon such visions are self fulfilling.
    I had no desire to write that horror story.

  2. Readers?

    Forget the readers – I have a tendency to perceive the characters and the plot differently when I’m reading something I just wrote a few days ago.

    Hell, I turned the main romantic interest in one story into a secondary/decoy character because I started to like her aide a lot more as a person, after a re-read of the first couple of chapters.

  3. Reminds me of one of my first critiques ever.

    It was in an after school University writing program and we’d all gone through getting critiqued once and the teacher was looking for extra stories. One of the critiquers was a Socialist/Trotskyite and looked at his critiques through that lens. Every story was a reflection of the battle between the bourgeois and the proletariat and a sharp condemnation of income inequality. My first story was about exactly the opposite but since it had some concepts in common I could see why he could read what he wanted in to that story.

    But the second story could not possibly be read that way. It was a story of a young man who was the best poker cheat in the world and the poker game he gets invited to where there are explicitly no rules. Not political in any way, just an interesting crime premise with a neat, O. Henry ending.

    His critique began; “This highlights the struggle between those who have money and those without when capitalism fails them….”

    He was probably wondering why the big blue collar dude started giggling.

    1. I had an instructor in college kinda like that, he tended to use ‘bourgeoise’ alot, so often i kept putting it in my notes as boozhwazee just to be a smart ass.

  4. Oh yes, I have had some utterly bewildering “how did you come up with that one?” moments discussing stories.

    Naturally I can no longer think of any good examples.

  5. I’ve found that the worst cases of Rashomon effect are self-inflicted by the readers – usually by critics. They do not, in any constructive sense of the word, read; they merely skim the text, looking for set verbal cues (what the Left calls ‘dog whistles’ when they are looking for excuses to disqualify a non-Leftist from public discourse) which have definite symbolic values in their ideological codebook. By doing that, you can extract any meaning from any book; or rather, you can extract the same meaning from any book, and condemn it on those grounds. (This method is seldom or never used to approve of books.)

    1. Critics and Literary professors typically believe that the author is the worst person to understand the theme of a book.

      Isaac Asimov described one such encounter with a lecturer who, when challenged by Asimov on his interpretation of the story, replied, “What would you know? You’re only the author.”

      This is also why scaffolds are frequently erected for Deconstructionists.

      1. Yes, I’ve heard that story.

        Many decades ago, my wife was taking two-dimensional design. She had a project where she had to take a painting and lay out masses of colored paper representing the main areas of color on the canvas. So she did this with Zurburan’s painting of St. Thomas Aquinas ascending to heaven. And then later she had a different assignment, a collage that made an autobiographical statement, and she did a collage whose theme was her relationship with me. When she finished it she showed it to me and asked what I thought, and I made some comments. And then I looked at it again, and said, “You know, the layout in this is the same as in the Zurburan painting. . . .” And she was astonished, and didn’t believe me, but she went and got the earlier collage and the copy of the painting she worked from, and there was Laurie Anderson in the exact position of the saint, standing over the two of us and blessing us (you had to be there). The correspondence of design elements was remarkable.

        There was also the time when I gave a copy of a poem of mine, “Lullabye,” to a friend who is a singer, and she composed music for it. And I had thought of it as a humorous, slightly satirical poem, but her version made it serious and moving. I’ve never been able to read or hear it other than her way since then: Her interpretation was better than mine.

        So now I believe that it’s not at all absurd to suppose that the artist may not be the best interpreter of their own work. The work of creation doesn’t take place entirely in the conscious, verbalizing parts of the brain. Asimov’s ability to heap scorn on that view and make it sound rational doesn’t show he was right any more than his ability to make central planning sound rational shows that he was right about that. (In fact the two could be related; the a mind controlled wholly by its conscious part is like a centrally planned economy.)

        1. The only time a reader told me his interpretation overcame mine was a friend of mine fantasizing about elephant shifters. (I think he was joking, but you HAD to be there.)

      2. As I recall, Asimov also wrote a short story about a scientist who brought William Shakespeare to the present day and let him enroll in a colleague’s Shakespeare class.

        “I had to send him back, of course. How much humiliation do you think a man can stand…YOU FLUNKED HIM!”

        1. The Atlanta Radio Theatre Company has a piece in its files somewhere in which a “Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare” wonk has his lecture interrupted by Shakespeare himself. Who tells him he’s right.

          Shakespeare was a professional ghostwriter, you see. The Earl of Essex, etc., had the ideas, but couldn’t write worth, um, beans…

    2. One instance: I was very shocked to know that Any Man So Daring was anti-racism. I mean, I’m anti-racism on principle, but that they extracted THAT meaning from the whole novel was… amazing. I wouldn’t even rate it as a tertiary meaning.

    3. I still remember a book listing movies in the historical genre that interpreted every war movie as an anti-war movie because there would be something unpleasant about the war.

    4. When I was in college, my program had a literary criticism class. (We got to do Lord of the Rings, very fun.) This meant we learned half a dozen different styles of literary criticism, and we had small groups to present an interpretation of the work according to each particular style. Being who we were, of course, people tried to pick a style as far from their particular worldview as possible. I think the “feminist” group had the hardest time (there really are not a lot of female characters in there.) But it was amusing.

  6. Bit me a bit back (sorry)
    I misread a portion of Wood Sprites twice before getting it right and I should apologize to whoever it was I mentioned this to because they hadn’t read it yet, and had to be wondering what I was alluding to (to prevent spoilers I was a bit vague).

  7. The readers’ opinions have literally contradicted each other, so I just shrug now, and induct mentally into the tribe those who react with any semblance of the way I think I wrote it.

    The others, well, not everyone likes the same books.

    Thing is, it says right up from it’s not a Romance, and it’s 167K words and 484 pages – how can they then complain it’s too long for a Romance? Still shaking my head.

    The customer is always right, but I hope some don’t come back.

  8. I’m sure the Libertarian Futurist Society’s Prometheus Award has bemused some authors who didn’t think that they were writing libertarian fiction (though at least the word seems to have gotten out that the award is for the book, not for the author’s libertarian credentials). But Terry Pratchett, Harry Turtledove, and Jo Walton, among others, have been very polite in their acceptance speeches.

    1. “Libertarian” is one of those philosophies to which hardly anyone objects in theory — it can be interpreted equally as semi-conservative and kinda-liberal.

      1. Oh, Walton at least was quite explicit about disagreeing with us on things like health care. But she thanked us for recognizing the things we agreed with her on and thinking they were important.

        Other than that, we regularly get comments about “how could they think X was libertarian?” Perhaps the strangest was the year we put The Lord of the Rings into our Hall of Fame. A novel about a peaceable country of farmers and merchants with very little government and a reverence for law being threated by foreign invasion? A novel about a device whose only use is to exercise power over others, which warns that it’s not only a danger to the others, but a threat to the user, who will be corrupted by the power it grants, and who will become addicted to possession of it? (We see that Gandalf is terrified of it, and that Galadriel is seriously tempted by it—and that’s a scary prospect: “All shall love me and despair!”) Goodness, what could be libertarian about that? But apparently a lot of people thought that government by kings automatically made it antilibertarian no matter what other themes it had.

        1. I read a book once where a bunch of people voluntarily getting together and organizing to do something is called socialist both in the book and by the author outside the work.

          1. Kenneth Boulding wrote long ago that there are three great binding forces in society: love, greed, and fear. He went on to say that the tragedy of socialism is that they set out to replace greed with love and end up replacing greed with fear. But I think a lot of socialists start out by imagining that they are going to produce a society where people willingly share what they have and help each other—and never think that some people will exploit such a setup.

            1. Socialists and communists (redundancy alert) use greed to drive envy and ride that to power because nothing says equality and love replacing greed, like your leader wearing two Rolexes while you hope there is enough power available to use the rice cooker the gov’t allowed you to have

              1. Of course the Dear Leader is motivated by greed, at least in part. But he extracts that wealth from the people, and gets them to put up with telling them what they’re allowed to do, not by offering them money but by threatening them with prison, torture, or death. That looks to me like fear.

                On the other hand, the desire of the poor for a share of the loot from expropriating the rich could fairly be classed as greed.

            2. Which is why it rang true when someone here mentioned (probably quoting someone else) that socialism is a heresy/parody of Christianity.

  9. One example of a topic certain to evoke various responses would be any excuse for gun-geeking. Most readers will simply read “weapon” and slide on, but the gun geeks will read for the specific model of gun involved. And the car geeks will read very specific messages into a line about the charqacter driving a “beautifully restored 1927 Bugatti type 35” while everyone else simply thinks …

    … classic car nut.

    Clothing details can be similarly distinctive.

    1. . . . which is why I make up car types. So I don’t get 1) fussed at because “that model never had that many horsepower until a decade after you set the story, as you would know if you read [impossible to find manual] or [privately printed history of type that is not available to public]” and 2) people trying to read into characters based on if they have a Maybach, Mercedes, or something else.

      1. Yep. Made up prevents that… but on the other hand, if you have a 30’s-something blonde in a Mercedes with a license plate that reads WASHIS, that’s a really handy character sketch in just a few details. Or a grizzled guy in a battered leather coat who likes his Colt Python revolver with all the bluing worn off.

      2. An awful lot of that information can be found very easily on Wikipedia these days. If you’re wondering about a particularly arcane piece of technical information, it’s always worth taking a look, as there’s a chance someone has posted it to the relevant Wiki entry.

        1. Eh, I have some serious philosophical problems with using Wiki for anything but pop culture. I know some areas are relatively safe from misinformation and, ahem, editorial stuff-storms, but Wiki is almost my source of last resort.

          1. I find Wiki fairly a good source for material that is a mater of simple public record: who was senator from California in 1942, for example, or the publication/reading order of the Vorkosigan Tales. For anything capable of being spun ideologically they are … dubious.

            1. Even the public record gets spun. I was looking up a city in Spain, and wiki spent a third of the article on how, after the muslim invasion was defeated by the Reconquista, the poor little muslims were treated badly and discriminated against by the evil meanie Christians. The fact that the muslim inhabitants of the city were “discriminated against” because they’d run the original spanish inhabitants out with blood and fire was apparently not an important fact.

    2. So, hypothetically, authors A and B could each write a crime thriller series whose main characters are an ensemble cast of white male FBI agents with law degrees, aged between their thirties and fifties, maybe sixties. A does some subtle character definition involving what kind of automatic pistol each agent uses, and B uses what kind of manual four door sedan each drives. Johnny Race Warrior insists that only the race of the character is definitive is relevant to the question of whether the characters are all the same.

      Here whether a character likes R.E. Howard, Drake, Spillane, or Grisham (sp?) more might say something.

      An otaku character might like Berserk, Naruto, Gundam, Precure, or Ranma and Sailor Moon more.

      And the Race, Sex, Religion, Class, and Preference warriors say they want more diversity.

      1. And the Race, Sex, Religion, Class, and Preference warriors say they want more diversity.

        Yes — but only approved diversity, everything carefully in its box and without any messy nuance.

  10. I know of a few novelists and even song writers who made their living by this syndrome. Tom Wolfe got conservative work published in Rolling Stone, Warren Zevon got a song co written by an anti-communist mercenary praised there, by people who think, if it’s cool, it must be progressive.

  11. Can’t get the song posted here. Look in You Tube for “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.”

  12. Old NFO had a beta reader take him to task, because he mentioned a character’s mustache. She grumped at him quite demandingly that he change that, because in her head, the character didn’t have a mustache!

    So it’s not just the theme of the book.

  13. The reviews for my younger brother’s book, The Sculpted Ship, are like that. Some praise his writing and some call it choppy. Some say it kept them riveted and other people are a little bored. Some people praise the editing and other people think it stunk. And so on.

    Shrug. It is raw human nature. You can take it into account, but you cannot change tastes.

    1. I was looking at a reviewer (not one of mine) on the ‘Zon and he goes through and one-stars any book that includes a mention of Hinduism that is not favorable to HIS kind of Hinduism, or that is slightly New Agey. He’s even one-starred the RgVedas because they are not “really Hindu.” As you say . . .

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