Writing the book you want to read; never mind the reviews – Lesia Daria
By Lesia Daria
As the first reviews trickle in for my debut novel Forty One – the rankings already ranging widely – I am reminded that you can’t please everyone all the time. It’s a mantra we tell ourselves often enough but usually in a superficial make-yourself-feel-better kind of way. But now, confronted by the fact that one reader assesses my characters as ‘wooden’ while another says they are so real she felt ‘ill’ with them and they stayed with her when she wasn’t reading, I think – well, what am I to make of that? Both propositions cannot be true at the same time.♥
And yet they can. Because it depends entirely on the reader’s experience and whether they want to, or even can, share my thoughts. The fact is that what I’ve written – the actual text on the page – may contain truth and beauty as I see it, but those elements may not be what others find. The way my book is received may have little to do with my intentions and efforts but will be partly determined by readers’ perceptions of themselves and their lives. Their reactions to any book are reflection of who they are. Rather than get down about a single lukewarm review, I am hugely encouraged by the existence of a range of opinion. It means there are so many different kinds of readers out there, surely there’s a place for a book like mine.
But I should be braver than that. Because that’s hardly disputable – there’s always room for another book. And the truth is that when I was writing I wasn’t thinking of readers really or ‘being out there’, though I was acutely aware and often fearful of what critics might say. But to stay focused, I had to forget everyone and concentrate on the writing – writing the kind of book I wanted to read. I tried to think only about pleasing myself as I set out characters and themes, polished sentences, worked through metaphors and ideas which I wanted to convey. I was so enthralled by what I was doing, it became an obsession with purity – a solo event, no outsiders allowed. Anyway, as a perfectionist, until I satisfied myself, there was no way the book would see the light of day. So worrying about other people’s opinions was pointless. I tried to stay convinced that what I was doing was worthwhile, and I thoroughly believed my novel was good and would be in its entirety. It would meet my standards. And that itself would be a great achievement.
It was only as the book neared publication that again I began to worry about how Forty One would be received. The world, so saturated in page-turners and light-reading, would it understand that I had tried for the opposite? That I hadn’t been tempted to take a more conventional route, to play that safe game of setting an obvious hook on page one with which to reel in the reader quickly? Would readers see that I had attempted a ‘big novel’? That’s what I like to read and therefore wanted to write. My book was always meant to be a work to sink one’s teeth into, not something so easily digestible it passed through the system in a day.
It helped me to regain confidence and stop worrying when I read an interview with American Nobel prize-winning author Toni Morrison about why she started to write. She said that at the time she wasn’t finding books that echoed the life she saw around her; nothing seemed to reflect her particular experiences and distinctive voices of growing up as a black girl. Coming across this statement was a mini-eureka moment. I thought, yes, that’s exactly why I wrote, and why I wrote in the way I did!
So I returned to the beginning. Where I had begun. I had tried to do something different: a slow burn, not a fast read. A work of literary fiction at the same time highly readable. A novel to stay with you, not dispose. So yes, I knew the risks were, and would be, enormous. It would be somewhat disingenuous for me now to be surprised by the odd review that says ‘ponderous.’ In any case, that’s no bad thing; a compliment, of sorts. It’s nice to see five stars, but I can always find something positive in that two-out-of-five rating.
Because the critical thing is that I have succeeded. Forty One is the book I wanted to read. And that is enormously important, not just for me because I feel that I accomplished what I set out to do. It’s because literature can’t progress unless authors are willing to stick to their guns whilst sticking their heads above the parapet and risk being shot down. It’s only by bringing something new into the world of books that we really add to it. So write the book you want to read. It may not be for everyone, but it will be perfect for some, and the greatest satisfaction will come from having been true to yourself.
Before turning to creative writing full time, Lesia worked as a journalist in Washington DC, Kiev, London and New York, where she last reported for the Financial Times. She’s also lived in Paris, Minsk and Istanbul and speaks several languages. Her more interesting experiences include visiting Chernobyl, meeting her husband riding motorbikes in Azerbaijan, trying to learn Turkish, skydiving and raising children. Her hobbies range from the static (reading), to mildly energetic (cooking), to quite sporty (black runs, off-piste). Occasionally, deciding life’s tough enough, she parties much harder than she’s worked that day.