Reader/writer schizophrenia

Some months ago I read a review of the movie Disgrace, based on the book by JM Coetzee. The reviewer praised John Malcovich’s performance, saying “his Lurie is such a proudly unrepentant predator”.

No doubt it was a fine performance. It was probably even a thought-provoking and interesting movie. But I didn’t go to see it. “Proudly unrepentant predators” are not my idea of a good time, and I go to the movies to be entertained, pure and simple.

Call me shallow, but I love me some happily ever after. I’m like this as a reader too. Occasionally I’ll try something challenging, but most of the time I like to lose myself in fantasy worlds where good conquers evil and all my favourite characters end up in a happy place. I blame my youthful obsession with fairy tales. If Once upon a time doesn’t lead to and they all lived happily ever after, I am not a happy camper.

But when I put on my writer’s hat that all changes. It’s such fun to kill, maim, destroy and generally blight your characters’ hopes. Not so much in novel-length works, because that would be too much depression, but in short stories I do dreadful things to my characters and love every minute. And then my poor writers’ group reads my stories and goes “well, that was a bit of a downer” – and I’m surprised. I’ve had such fun writing it that I haven’t even realised that it’s a miserable story that leaves the reader wallowing in depression.

The first time I did this one of my writers’ group said, “it was well written but I don’t like depressing stories. If it was a novel I would have been really annoyed to get all invested in the character only to have it end like that”. And the little light bulb in my head went off and I thought, hey, me too! So how come I wrote it? Obviously my writer self is looking for different things than is my reader self.

So now I understand better where all those authors who write depressing books come from. Why things never seem to end happily in “literary” novels. It’s fun to write like that – to explore sadness and realistic consequences and the kind of things you generally don’t find in fantasy novels. (Of course I’m generalising here, and there are fantasy novels that don’t follow the common pattern, but on the whole I think happily ever afters are one of the conventions of the fantasy genre, just as in the romance genre.) I could never see it before I started writing myself – why would people want to write something that leaves the reader miserable? Now I know.

It seems a bit perverse though, doesn’t it? To write something that I wouldn’t want to read if somebody else had written it. Not that I do it all the time, but often enough that I’ve started to notice it. Does anybody else find their writing preferences are different to their reading ones?

Or am I the only weirdo?

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