Throughout my life, I have been a certified book snob. I think it began when I was 16 and I convinced the conservative English teacher in my little Catholic school to let me, a virginal junior, write my paper about Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. Lolita is about a lot of things, but most of all it’s notorious for being told from the point of view of a would-be pedophile. Also, it’s brilliant. I’d stumbled on it at my public library and it jolted me to attention from its very first line:
“Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. She was Lo, plain Lo, in the morning, standing four feet ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly at school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.”
When you set the bar that high that early, you are bound to be disappointed. I can’t tell you how many times I began books with great expectations only to have my hopes dashed. The stilted dialogue! The too-easy resolution! Like a mate who does nothing but criticize but never bothers to thank you for the little things you DO do, I was often impossible to please.
But it was just because I loved books so. When they worked – when the author spun her magic and enthralled me – nothing could ever be better. Books haunted and uplifted me and became part of my own story. There’s a little part of me that’s really gone to school at Hogwarts. Another that’s actually lived several cataclysmic events such as famines, comet impacts and, notably, once, the zombie apocalypse (God, I loved World War Z). When I was harsh on a book, mine was the ire of the disappointed romantic. I knew how good books could be, and it broke my heart when they weren’t.
Then I wrote one.
The other day I did an event with an older group of readers, not the teens I’ve gotten used to addressing. They were wonderful. However, one was clearly peeved by the way I’d resolved the relationship with the father in the book. She thought – and she might have been right – that I’d made the father character have too many realizations at the end, that a character like him would never be that self-aware. She asked me why I wrote it that way. I racked my brain searching for some writerly wisdom. All I came up with was, “It was the best I knew how to do.”
So there it was. It was flawed and imperfect, the finest attempt I had. For someone who has dreamed of writing all her life, it was a profoundly humbling realization. I had done my best and someone was disappointed and had found it wanting. The critics have been overwhelmingly kind to my book, but I’ve had my share of reading a less-than-gushing review and thought “That’s right. As a reader, I wish the author had found a more elegant solution there too.” As the author, I knew I’ve gone as far as I knew how to go at the time.
Last night I finished a book which you’ve seen if you’ve been in a bookstore in the last six months. Its cover is striking, its premise intriguing. Better yet, when I started reading it, I instantly fell in love with the main character and her voice. The story was well-paced and surprised even this jaded reader. It was the kind of book that kept me up because I didn’t want to put it down. Because I had to know how it ended.
It ended badly. And I don’t mean tragically. I mean: badly written. It kind of didn’t end. It broke several cardinal rules of storytelling, leaving threads unresolved, rushing too much at the end, creating a totally anticlimactic non-confrontation with the antagonist which was supposed to be nuanced but just felt muddy. I was SO DISAPPOINTED. I had lost sleep to finish this thing and it had let me down in a big way.
Then I imagined this author at her notebook sketching out her ideas. Thinking through the ramifications of each decision. Dreaming up details in the middle of the night, or while in the shower, or on a walk, and rushing to jot them down. I imagined how excited she was to sign her contract and how many stacks of her books she’s marveled over, knowing she finally gave this book to the world. Knowing she had done her best. So much of her book was so good. But, more importantly, she had obviously worked so hard.
I was filled with affection for her.
Today I read something that sparked this whole line of thought, the connection between the disappointment I’d caused that one reader and the disappointment this author caused me. It said, about another book, “respect the work and the effort that went into it.” Much like being a mom has made me softer with the exasperated young mother with the screaming toddler at the store, so too have I now learned to have more compassion for the authors that don’t quite do things the way I wish they would. Because, having been in those trenches, I know that I can’t do any better than my best. And neither can anyone else. So we just do.