No Two People Read the Same Book

During my 25 years as a psychotherapist, I had three or four middle-aged, unmarried, repressed, socially inept male clients who, instead of telling me their thoughts and dreams and fears, initially tried to substitute their private journals for me to read. The journals were filled with their sexual fantasies. No matter how sympathetic I am to the loneliness of a man who hasn’t a clue about intimacy with a woman, there’s something a little icky about reading fantasies that go way over the line into the sordid and the pornographic.

Those journals with their sad sexual fantasies came to mind last week when I read a new novel that got a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly and blurbs of praise from some authors I highly respect. Published by a house known for its quality fiction, the prose was lyrical, but mostly it was a series of sex scenes by cardboard characters held together by a banal plot. Reading it gave me the same feeling that I used to get when I read the sexual fantasies of socially deficient men.

I mention this not because I think the critics who praise the book are wrong, but to point out that every time we open a book, we do so with our entire life experiences poised for the reading. There is no such thing as a purely objective reader. No matter how much we may want to judge a book solely by the syntactical or organizational skill with which it was written, we take in its entirety and react to it on a personal basis.

The moral for writers is that agents and editors do the same thing. One agent may read a manuscript and find it delightful, another agent may find it repulsive. Pre-published writers need to keep that in mind when they get rejections, and be glad of it. Agents and editors only take on books they’re crazy about, and that’s a good thing. If they don’t love a book, they won’t do a good job of selling it. Some agent loved the book that made me feel a little dirty, and some editor believed in it enough to pay the author a big chunk of money. They weren’t wrong to do that. It’s how the business operates and how it should.

So if you have a manuscript that has been rejected several times, and if you’ve got enough positive feedback from qualified critics to know that you’re a competent writer with an interesting story, don’t give up. If your work meets professional standards, you’ll eventually find the agent or editor who loves it and will work hard to make it a success. I applaud that, even if the book makes me feel icky.

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