In our polarized world, we are facing a constant onslaught of messages. From the practical of ‘look both ways before you cross the street‘ to the insane gaslighting of ‘glyphosate causes cancer‘ we’re bombarded at every turn. It’s on the news, on the internet, and in our fiction. We can’t escape it, it seems.
My Dad adopted a dog a few years ago while I was still living with him on the Farm. The young dog he’d adopted was about a year old, and a farm collie (appropriately enough), and he was a rescue dog. That last part was the problematic bit. You see, Wade had been born and raised on a farm down South somewhere, with his big dog family, and one little old man. When the man died, the dogs were left alone, roaming the farm, lost and confused. Then the rescuers arrived, and Wade’s trauma began. My Dad, talking to the rescuers, was told that it took them days to chase and trap the dogs, only a few would allow themselves to be caught easily. Finally they were all rounded up, taken to the vet, given their shots, neutered, and dispersed in cars and planes to their new homes. On the surface, this sounds like a great thing, right? But look at it from Wade’s perspective. He’d been ripped away from his pack, hunted down, trapped, tortured, and transported. Little wonder when the poor guy finally made it to the Farm in NH he was a nervous wreck. The only person he’d allow near him was my Dad. Women were TEH EVUL and I only ever got to pet him twice, both times with him shaking and trying to hide under the safe male. I’d be willing to bet good money – and I’m not a gambler – that his ‘rescuers’ were all women.
I’m am sure, that like animal rescues everywhere, they had the best of intentions. These dogs would not be healthy in the long run without their dead owner. But the outcome of their efforts was a dog who was traumatized and who would flinch whenever someone who looked like (and smelled like) his tormentors came too close. Humans can have this reaction, too. And it’s not just the involuntary twitch of someone who has experienced a violent hand laid on them. It’s a mental thing, too. We’ve been trained to flinch away from certain stimuli. In my opening paragraph, both examples are trained responses: hesitate before stepping onto a road, and ‘chemicals are TUH EVUL.’ One is a good, safe, normal response. The other is the trained flinch instilled by an abuser (of the truth, not physical in this case).
That flinch response isn’t entirely conscious. We can choose to recover from the flinch and allow the kind hand to pat us. Or, in the case of this post, we can look beyond the first chapter of a book that provokes that cringe, and discover a good story we quite enjoy. But why? When there are so many other books out there in the world that promise quality entertainment without flashbacks to people who hurt us, why would an author choose to front-load their book with virtue-signalling and message when that’s not what the book is about at all?
This came up over a review of a book that a friend and fellow author, Michael A. Rothman had read and posted on social media. I’m quoting extensively from him, because he says it very well, and I’ll point out here that he does have some books you should check out – because he does write well! I’ve redacted a name, since I didn’t have permission to share that part. It still works.
I think [the flinch] reaction/question is not uncommon.
Take the book that my post is about, it has quite a few one-star reviews that mostly have a single theme. They in essence match the reaction [flinching] had.
To me, my criticism of this book, which really isn’t a criticism so much as a “I’d do it a bit differently” thought.
Instead of introducing what I know would be an ideologically polarizing element in the beginning of the book, I’d have tried to introduce it later.
Well, mostly in the beginning you haven’t earned the trust of the reader. As much as possible you want them to get involved before you piss in their ideological punch bowl.
I can almost guarantee that most of those one-star types didn’t read past the second or third chapter.
To me, it’s about getting a reader hooked and as an author, you know what audiences will find challenging.
I personally don’t try to challenge them ideologically too much up front.
It’s about avoiding [the flinching] reaction or the reaction of the one-stars.
The review that provoked the comment and led to Michael’s response was, in part, this:
I often go to a book’s one-star reviews, not to dissuade or entice me, but to see what naysayers have to say. Sometimes a book has a couple nonsensical one stars that are ignorable idiocy that reads more on the reviewer than the writer, but sometimes they hit on something.
In this case I immediately noticed a bunch of butt-hurt conservatives squawking about the book hating religion or somesuch nonsense.
Note: I’m a conservative, so my curiosity was piqued. Dennis had obviously tweaked some of the religious right.
I started reading and immediately began chuckling. Aside from the first chapter or so that serves as more of a prologue to the rest of the story, the initial antagonist is a future government that’s imagined as a theocracy – think Spanish Inquisition, with tech.
Ya, I can see why people got their noses bent on it, because it did make the right wing sort of the initial enemy. However, the story has really nothing to do with it. It’s just how it kicked off and I think those people simply stopped reading and lost out on a remarkable tale.
The problem that Michael was highlighting is that even an excellent book can fall victim to the trauma inflicted by the heavy message fiction on the reader. And the reader is going to be thrown out of the story, and put down the book to walk away and avoid that author forever after. Am I saying that authors should never have, say, a lesbian main character oppressed by the patriarchy who is then given the opportunity to put her boot on the patriarchal symbol in her life? Not really. I’m saying that if the author chooses to lead with that, and make their character defined by her sexuality and gender, he should be prepared to see some readers flinching away from his work, and choosing not only to avoid his story, but to talk about it. Because very few people choose to indulge in exposure therapy with their escapist fiction. What they want is a literal escape from the bombardment of messages in their life. A time where they don’t want to have to flinch away from the approaching stimulus because it’s associated indelibly in their brain with pain.
I can’t tell you how many people I have talked to in my life who say that they don’t read. Sometimes, specifically, they are talking about not reading science fiction and fantasy. They started avoiding it, sometimes unconsciously, because it made them flinch. On a deep level, they had been conditioned to give up a harmless pleasure. Some people stopped reading because their school teachers forced ‘literature’ down their throats when they were children, and helpless to do anything but obey or fail a class. Little wonder they flinch away from books. It’s a trained response, and overcoming that lack of trust takes a lot of time, some willingness on the part of the reader to push past a first chapter that invokes the flinch response, and some willingness on the author to understand that they can’t just rush up to an abused dog and not have it snap at them.