Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

'Cause I hate you, and I berate you

by Robison Wells

So far in my career as an author, I haven't received a lot of angry letters. Of course, I don't get an overwhelming amount of fan mail either. I think that's because my books are bland and innocuous--literary mashed potatoes--and don't inspire the kind of passionate feelings associated with letter writing. Or maybe just no one has my email address.

One memorable angry email was titled "Enjoyed Your Book". You can imagine how pleased I was to see that appear in my in-box, taunting me with its promises of compliments and praise. But when I opened it up, it was not nearly as pleasant as advertised.

The main complaint was that the main character in On Second Thought, my first book, was too indecisive and non-committal. In the book--as you no doubt recall because you've read it thirteen times--the protagonist, Walt, is a guy in his late twenties who is unmarried and doesn't like his job. By the end of the book, however, he's married and happy. (I suppose that I should have put some kind of Spoiler Alert right there, if you're the type of person who finds the endings of romantic comedies surprising.) The letter writer's complaint was with Walt's initial flaws, and seemed to ignore the fact that he eventually changes. That, I think, is akin to not liking Luke Skywalker because he's forever trapped on that distant planet, farming for his uncle.

Anyway, the letter writer continued and got even angrier. Taking the stance that Walt was a symbol for all American men, she (the writer was a she) complained that he's illustrative of all that's wrong with society. Men aren't committal, and they're more than willing to let women make all the first moves, and blah blah blah. Were I the type of person to speculate about the lives of letter writers, I'd assume her boyfriend simply wouldn't ever pop the question. Or, possibly, she didn't have a boyfriend at all--probably because she's a whiny grouch--and was annoyed that no one was asking her out. But of course, I'm not like that, so I'm not even going to mention it.

Last week I got another angry letter--a much longer one about The Counterfeit, my third book, and one that was more insightful. Many of the comments were indeed valid and thought-provoking. (So valid and thought-provoking that they finally made me realize what a crappy writer I am, and that I ought to give it all up.)

But the letter also included this line: "Oh, and your anti-gun diatribes were a little over the top." In other words, after reading my book, the letter-writer believed that I had an anti-gun political agenda.

While I've tried to make it a rule that readers are always right--that if they didn't "get it", it was probably because of weakness in the writing, not the reading--I have to simply say this:

First, just because a certain character says something, that doesn't mean they're correct--or even that they mean what they say. In this book, I never intended at all for that character to be making a political statement. Her reaction to the gun was based on something else entirely.

But second, and more importantly: it's freaking fiction, people! Even if I wrote a scene where my character stood up on a soapbox and quoted Karl Marx, that wouldn't ever imply that I personally believe that stuff. It's a character in a book, nothing more.

I remember when On Second Thought came out, and readers began to ask me questions about it. An aquantaince approached, complimented me on the book, and then said: "I didn't know your wife was from California."

"California?" I said. "She's not. Why do you say that?"

He looked confused, and thought for a moment. "Well the girl in the book--she was from California! Is that not your wife?"

No, moron. It's fiction. Notice how my name is "Rob", not "Walt".

Anyway, pardon my ranting. Even in spite of the occassional weird comment, I like getting angry letters--I almost always come away from them with an idea of how to become a better writer.

Then again, it's weird to realize that complete strangers are thinking about me, and upset enough to let me know. Man, I wish it was illegal for these wackos to own guns.


At 6/12/2007 5:41 PM, Blogger ChillyGator said...

Does this mean I can blame you for my guy friend being non-committal? Even though he's probably never read one of your books? That is a wonderful option in my life. Darn you, Rob, write books where the guy works for it!

Of course if I'm blaming you then you might as well have free reign to make fun of my dating life and the vicious circle will be as it should.

At 6/12/2007 6:05 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

Wait--so you *haven't* had a bunch of adventures in the catacombs? Oh, man . . .

At 6/12/2007 6:09 PM, Blogger Michele Holmes said...

Thanks for showing me what I have to look forward to, Rob. For the record, I loved all three of your books---my personal favorite being Wake Me When It's Over.

At 6/12/2007 6:54 PM, Anonymous kerry said...

Isn't it funny (as in odd, ironic, laughable and sometimes insane) that people who are probably intelligent and perfectly nice otherwise take pen to paper to write such things?

At least you're clear in your fiction. Most of my "fan letters" contain examinations -- essay answers always required. Apparently I am particularly terrible at wrapping things up. Nine out of every ten people who write to me ask, "What happens next?" I once wrote almost 900 pages about a baseball player and STILL get one or two letters a week asking what happens next. If it weren't so dang nice, I'd probably scream. Who has time to write books anymore? I spend all my writing time answering mail.

That is, of course, the very best part of being a published writer! Like you, I appreciate every word every single person bothers to send me -- even the "helpful" ones! Sometimes especially the "helpful" ones.

Great post, Rob! If nothing else it helps to know I'm not the only one who gets that kind of feedback.

At 6/13/2007 11:37 AM, Anonymous mean aunt said...

Wait--you're not Walt? I'm so confused.

At least Stephanie's books are autobiographical.

Sorry, I just cracked myself up thinking of Stephanie as Lt Kent.

--Mean Aunt

ps I saw Kerry Blair in the same room as doughnuts so I know her books are based on her own adventures.

At 6/13/2007 4:11 PM, Blogger Micah Bruner said...

I wrote that letter to Rob and let me clarify.

First of all, everyone puts their bias in their chosen media. Whether it's the national nightly news, cable news channels, newspaper stories, or works of fiction (the last category often encompasses the rest), everyone expresses a bias of some sort or another.

That having been said, for those who have read The Counterfeit, the anti-gun slant was not merely one person's opinion. It came across as a much broader theme. Rebekah's comments boiled down to saying Eric shouldn't use the gun to protect either of them because to do so would be to stoop to the level of the terrorists.

While fiction, this book had overtones of right and wrong. Rebekah's character was set up as a moral compass. If she represents that which is right, and she makes comments disparaging guns, what other conclusion is there to draw than the author is against guns?

Certainly the fact that my thoughts are always steeped in politics (no guarantee they are relevant or intelligent) plays into how I read these types of comments. But still, for a writer to use his book to push an agenda - even in a work of fiction - is not unheard of or unusual.

Finally, in a review of the Star Wars films (the original three) some important person was asked why Star Wars was an "instant classic." The critic stated that classics are generally known for the way in which they confront and address universal themes. While Rob's book is a work of fiction, I know Rob and, while I didn't think he was attempting to write the next great American novel, I gave him the benefit of the doubt that he was aspiring to something a little weightier than merely a bathroom book that means nothing. If I read too much into it, I apologize.

At 6/13/2007 4:17 PM, Blogger Micah Bruner said...

As for your last comment, Rob, I've got my tin in my hand and a gleam in my eye, if you know what I mean.

At 6/13/2007 4:32 PM, Anonymous Amy said...

You guys on this blog really like to scare me away from writing and/or force me to realize that I'm more like a writer then I really believe.

I've had a similar experience when wrote a "teen suspense with a side of romance" for my friends who complain that I only write boring historical fiction.(okay, so the never said it was boring but I know they think it.) I made the mistake of naming the hero in the story after a boy in my ward without even thinking that it was his name when I wrote it. Now my friends all think I'm madly in love with this kid in my ward.

Rob, just so you know, I’ve just read Wake me When its Over for a second time (I’ve been reading it to my grandpa who can’t read himself anymore) and it’s excellent just like the other two! Eric, Rebekah, and Felix (Along with Walt and Clara) were all amazing believable and awesome characters. The plotlines are like nothing else and the stories had the perfect mix of humor, suspense and romance. I don’t know how anyone can complain about them. My grandpa liked it too, though he complained that I didn’t sound like Eric but that isn’t your fault.

At 6/13/2007 4:48 PM, Anonymous robwells said...

Fair criticism, I suppose, and I think we'll have to hearken back to the "reader is always right" idea.

In my defense, here's what I meant with the gun (spoilers ahoy!):

Rebekah had been the victim of an inadvertent bombing, and spent several weeks in the hospital. She was whisked out of the hospital, abducted, in a sense, by her father. She then learns that her father used to be ideological terrorist--friends with the terrorists she believe set the bomb--and that now he's selling weapons to the highest bidder.

So, in other words, her entire reality is shaken--her father is or was a terrorist, an illegal arms dealer, and a murderer. She saw the violence his mindset produces when she was nearly killed--twice.

Cut to a quiet scene, when she and Eric (her boyfriend) are resting. She turns on the light and sees Eric--the only person alive she can trust--holding a gun. I think it's not unreasonable in the least for her to freak out.

Rebekah is quite ideological, and believes very strongly in black-and-white morality. In her current state of mind, she'd been seeing the bad guys hunt her down--they'd just shot one of her only protectors. I don't think it's a stretch at all to say that she'd associate the gun with the bad guys.

However, you do raise a good point (as I mentioned in the blog--your letter was very insightful). While an anti-gun stance was certainly not my point, I can still kinda see what you're getting at.

That said, your argument is still flawed. I'm actually one of the most pro-gun people I know. We can argue all day long about how the gun was portrayed in the book, but none of that can change the fact that I had no anti-gun agenda. I had an anti-evil agenda, yes, and an anti-violence agenda, too. But not anti-gun. Heavens no.

One day when I'm feeling particularly political, I'll blog about my gun ideas. Here's a preview: I'm extremely pro-gun, but I'm extremely anti-sport hunting.

And Micah: my homies is down, so don't arouse my anger. Foo.

At 6/13/2007 5:08 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...


I agree completely that everyone has a bias. The problem is that as writers, we are creating characters. And since our characters are every bit as alive to us as real people, they also come with their own biases.

To assume that you know an author's leaning on a subject based on the main character of a book he wrote is extrememly dangerous and most often wrong.

If you read enough of an author's work you MIGHT be able to get an idea of their political or religious leanings. But even then, I've been surprised many times by the authors personal views when I meet them.

The best books are the one's where you see multiple viewpoints so convincingly you can't make up your own mind. The "evil" character should always have a reason they use to vlaidate their actions, and the "good" character should have believable flaws.

The worst writing is when an author is trying to convince you of her point of view through a story.

At 6/13/2007 5:38 PM, Blogger Micah Bruner said...

I suppose we'd better be careful with the lyrical references. Coolio didn't seem to pleased when he was parodied by Weird Al without his permission. And I don't want to piss Coolio off even though, given the nature of this forum, I think we're safe.

Rob, the reasoning behind my argument is flawed in this context. However, I stand by my assertion that your writing is easily mistaken as being anti-gun. In private correspondence you have admitted that I am not the only one to have made such a mistake.

I'll premise the rest of my comments with the following disclaimor:
I am not an author. I have never really attempted to write a book. So I do not write as someone who has written a book.

I have read plenty, however, and while I don't pretend to know the first thing about writing a novel (though I do know how to write good), I am basing my comments on what I have seen in the books I have read. My thoughts on biases in all forms of media may be flawed, but from what I've read, heard, and seen, I'll stand by them.

I also stand by my assertion that authors of works of fiction, by their nature, are likely to include some bias in their writing. Rob just tries to hide the fact that he is a raving liberal.

As for your comments, Jeff, I agree to an extent with your thoughts. However, it is rare that you will find anyone who does an adequate job portraying ideals opposite of that which they believe. Liberals would be a thing of the past if everyone did enough research into the ideals of those opposed to them.

As it is, most people (I include authors in that group) set up a straw man to represent the opposition, destroy it, and then stand victorious over it as if they have just struck their opposition to the core. In reality they have stacked the deck in their favor.

However, I will agree that you are much less likely to find strong bias in works of fiction than in other media. After all, the goal of fiction is to entertain, not sway people's opinion. Still, I believe that even in the context of fiction the authors introduce their biases in the characters which they create either through presenting their "good guy" with the characteristics they find admirable, or by presenting the "bad guy" with a philosophy that is deeply flawed.

That having been said, it would seem that the best books are written by those who 'write what they know' leaving the author's baises exposed. Given that premise, I would only expect authors to introduce bias through their characters.

Rob, while I'm sure I agree with your gun stance, I'm just as sure that I disagree with your game-hunting stance - especially after living here in the wilds of Alaska. But I won't get into that here.

At 6/13/2007 7:16 PM, Blogger Jon said...

Rob, I will do my best to send you an angry fan letter when I get done reading the Counterfeit, whether I end up liking it or not, ok?

Kerry's response worries me a little, since I know that I have sent one of those examinations. *blush* I did think I was being helpful.


At 6/13/2007 7:30 PM, Anonymous kerry said...

In your case, Jon, you WERE helpful and I'll appreciate you forever! Nothing to blush about or sigh over. Your notes are the kind I print off and frame and/or save to study. (Like Jeff's blogs.) It's other helpful people who deserve the quotation marks.

At 6/13/2007 11:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bias? Are you kidding. We're trying to make fiction a reality and if we borrow political ideas, moral themes, recipes, bank statements or prison records from the real world it is soley for the purpose of makeing our stories and our characters believeable.

And we certainly don't let what we can't believe stop us from writing what others will believe. Fiction creates the impression of reality. It does not mirror or duplicate reality. If the reader wanted unadulterated realite, he would not read ficition. he would read financial statements.

Surely no one believes the Three Muskateers suvived all those sword duels, that Parry Mason could never los in court, that James Bond actually saved the wordl from total destruction. All fiction is "make-believe" and "one-upon-a-time". The fact that great fiction has influenced the morality and ideals of the world merely proves that readers take thse fictive inventions seriously. Yes readers do not accept fictional characters as real (or at least they better not).

Believing what you write and believing IN what you write, are not the same. Writers are not required to believe their inventions----we are required to write them competently!

At 6/14/2007 11:26 AM, Anonymous rob wells said...

Interesting thoughts, all, and I'd love to argue them. But just yesterday I found a very interesting quote that applies very succinctly to this discussion.

Over at Times And Seasons (one of the original LDS collaborative blogs), they came up with three rules for discussing Mormon literature. It's an interesting article, and you ought to read it, but here's the third rule:

"In the implicit contract between author and reader, the reader writes all the clauses, adjudicates all disputes, and executes all judgments."

I can argue all day about what I meant in The Counterfeit, but that will never change the way Micah interpreted it.

I'm actually sitting in the Salt Lake City Library while I'm commenting now, and there's a quote here from the Talmud, etched in glass: "We see things not as they are. We see things as we are."

Part of writing--and all art--is that the reader is usually going to view the story/message/theme as something slightly different from what we intended. That's kinda neat, actually.

(But it still doesn't make me anti-gun!)

At 6/14/2007 11:46 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reading this whole thing, I got stuck on one phrase:

"though I do know how to write good."

Well . . .

At 6/14/2007 11:48 AM, Anonymous rob wells said...

Anon, I think that was a joke.

At 6/14/2007 12:33 PM, Blogger Julie Wright said...

gee, Rob, no one ever sends me hate mail. They all tell me how brilliant I am. You must doing something wrong, pal. (dang, I wish this were true!) :)

At 6/14/2007 12:54 PM, Blogger Micah Bruner said...

To set the record straight, my comment on writing good was intended to be a joke.

My original point was that Rob wrote some comments about guns that I took to be anti-gun. After reading his explanation of what he meant by the comments, I better understand what he meant by his comments.

The fact that Rob is not anti-gun means that I was wrong in my perception of why he was writing what he did. And, as I stated earlier, my misperception came because I mistook Rob's work of fiction for something that had a larger purpose than merely to entertain.

I am not going to disagree that there are great writers who write fictitious stories where characters spout philosophies or political viewpoints contrary to the writers' true beliefs and do so in a convincing fashion. But I contend that the best writing is done by those who write what they believe. Does that mean that every book has to have a greater purpose behind it than telling a funny story? No. In fact as I read a lot I often look forward to escaping into a book whose purpose is to provide great entertainment.

But, in reading The Counterfeit - a politically heavy book - I felt that there was supposed to be more to this than merely entertainment. I disagreed with a lot of what both Felix and Edward did and said regarding their motivations. When the gun comments were made, my reading of the book was already politically charged and I thought Rob was attempting to make a political statement. Obviously I was wrong not only in his intent of writing but also in his meaning of the statements.

As a reader I feel that every word chosen by an author should be carefully selected so as to impress upon me the exact feeling the author intended to portray. Some books are going to be written to allow me to escape from the real world. Others will be written in as a work of fiction but will be politically charged. For the latter group the ability of the author to portray something they don't truly beleive is fighting a losing battle and will more often than not result in a poor representation of the other viewpoint.

At 6/14/2007 8:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When someone confuses something in your books with your life open up your book to the copy right page and read them the part that says, "This is a work of fiction. The characters, names, incidents, places, and dialogue are products of the author's imagination, and are not to be construed as real."

At 6/15/2007 12:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, my dear micah bruner, you forget that the author desperately does NOT want to be recognized in all this ficticious storytelling. The author is working very hard to have the characters tell the story. If, when you read Rob's story, you felt as if you were communicating on some level with the author, then Rob, sadly, has failed to achieve a believeable voice for his actors. But, mon ami, if you were lost in the characters and you thought that one of them had a politically correct (or incorrect) view of guns, then, my dear reader friend Micah, Rob has indeed achieved his aim.

So which is it? Is Rob just another author or did he beguile you with his powerful characterizations and authentic voice so much that you actually believed you were communicating with ficticious persons?

At 6/15/2007 1:02 PM, Blogger Micah Bruner said...

Rob is a very good friend of mine and I really, really enjoyed On Second Thought. I think he is a great writer with some good ideas and, when allowed to write his own story, he is a fantastic author.

That said, I really didn't like The Counterfeit. Nor did I really feel engaged by any of the characters. Sorry to say it but I considered The Counterfeit to be a disaster of a book. The politics in the book were out of place and insufficiently explored. The motivations of the characters were ridiculous and much of the reasoning behind their actions were nonsensical.

However, your comments have made me realize that I'm wrong. Authors of well-written works of fiction that are politically charged are convincing when the author writes the characters so they support the viewpoint that is opposite to his. It makes sense - if an author believes that guns have no place in modern society (at least not in the hands of private citizens) and he writes a book where the main character is a vociferous defender of the 2nd Amendment then it is going to be a good book. After all, he is going to be able to represent the viewpoint opposite his in a very well-reasoned, logical manner.

How could I have been so blind.

At 6/16/2007 2:26 PM, Anonymous rob wells said...

What a fantastically appropriate comment for a blog about angry letters. I love it!

At 6/16/2007 6:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Rob. There are 22 comments here. Which one is appropriate?

At 6/16/2007 7:22 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

I was referring to the one directly before mine--22.


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