The Gestalt of Reading

My very good friend, who we will call S, is a big fan of writer A. S has read and enjoyed everything A ever wrote. She finds his stories thought provoking and insightful. She feels a connection with his characters, and she thinks A is one of the best writers ever. I find his stories to be shallow, impractical, and puerile. I think his characters are two dimensional and puppet like, in that they do things merely to further the plot and not from any actual motivation.

So which of us is right?

As much as I’d like to say I’m right, I must add that A is considered to have been one of the “Big Names” in SF. He’s dead, now. So, many people would say I’m the one that is wrong. The truth is we’re both right.

What? How can that be?

Reading is a gestalt process. First there is the writer, they bring to the story what they know, what they believe, how they perceive the world and its workings, the people they’ve met, the things they’ve done, how they feel, etc. They try to put the story down on paper (or, more usually these days, in the computer) as they see it in their mind. Then along comes the reader, who brings all that they know, have lived, believe, feel, etc. The story is filtered through that reader’s perceptions to create the “story” in their mind.

If there is a major disconnect between the writer’s perceptions and the reader’s perceptions the story won’t find a happy home in that reader’s mind. Doesn’t mean the writer is an idiot. Doesn’t mean the reader is one of the unwashed that wouldn’t recognize genius if it stomped on them.

While we are all in many ways the same, we are also very different. Stories that touch one heart will leave another cold. Characters that come alive for person S are two-dimensional puppets for R. Doesn’t mean that one is right and the other wrong. We’re both right, and we’re both wrong.

I allow that S truly likes A. She is willing to forgive me for hating almost everything that A wrote. I did like his autobiography. Apparently he was only a fictional jerk, in real life he was a very nice guy. Too bad he’s dead.

So if you find something or some writer you don’t like, let it go and don’t read that (them) any more. If you find something or some writer you do like, don’t be offended if not everyone agrees with you. Agree to disagree, and keep looking for more good stuff.

And if you find anything good, let me know. I’m always looking for more good stuff.

I’ve already discovered Terry Pratchett, and if you haven’t you should.



The Gestalt of Reading — 3 Comments

  1. It is also true that sometime you like some of what an author writes but not all. There are people who;s reaction to these stories will go the other way. Different strokes for different folks.

  2. The other factor may be the age of the reader. It is well known that a book you read at 17 reads entirely differently at age 27. Although many of us can re-read childhood favorites for years, some oldies are no longer goodies — we have outgrown them. It is argued that you should read HAMLET at least once a decade, since it is an entirely new play for you. And fans of the Narnia books probably can quote the dedication to LION, WITCH & WARDROBE — Lewis promises his god-daughter that some day she will be old enough to read fairy tales again.
    So, your friend S may have been at the exact right age for author A, while you may be either too young or too old.

  3. Both very good points. There are authors who have several different series where I like one but not another. And I know about the age thing, too. It’s so true. Some stuff I liked when I was younger I don’t really care for now, and vice versa. Not however in this case. S liked A when she was young and still rereads his stuff now. I happenstanced across his stuff when I was young and hated it. Still hate it. There is even one writer that I like his style, I like his characters, but I hate the way he ends his novels. That is not my idea of a happy ending. Whatcha gonna do?