As a reader in a community of readers, I know that all of us have unique responses to the books we read.
My opinion of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone or No Country for Old Men or Never Let Me Go will be different from yours, even if we both give them a thumbs’ up or a thumbs’ down.
As a reviewer, I know that there is a huge difference between a review — a thoughtful examination of plot, style, character development, point of view, etc. — and a reaction. (A reaction is something along the lines of “I liked it” or “It sucked” or “It inspired me” or “It made me feel sick”.) After all, a review requires that we attend to much more than the immediate emotional response that we experience when we look at someone’s work.
As a storyteller, I am thus prepared to encounter many different responses from readers of my own novels. I have no doubt that what delights some will disgust others.
It’s not my job as a writer to worry about what you like or what you don’t like. It’s my job to bring my subject to life and engage it in the best way I know how.
The Ale Boy’s Feast has arrived in stores, and I’ve already seen many different opinions. Other writers have told me that it’s bad manners for a writer to respond when readers have negative reactions. I don’t intend to respond to negative reactions. I fully anticipated that I’d experience those. The Ale Boy’s Feast wasn’t written to make people happy; it was written as an invitation to a difficult, but hopefully rewarding, journey.
But I do feel that I need to address a different kind of dichotomy in some of the reviews and reactions that I’ve seen on various blogs.
I’m not talking about the difference between “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.”
Here’s what I mean…
Some reviewers are taking the time to share thoughtful opinions, positive or negative, about this fantasy novel. Others are just raving (positive) or ranting (negative) without much evidence that they’ve thought about what they encountered. In fact, it seems that some of them didn’t even understand what kind of book they’d been served.
It’s like this: Imagine I’m a cook and I offer a full chicken dinner to some food critics to consider. Some of those critics discuss the chicken dinner — its strengths and its weaknesses, its ratio of meat and potatoes, the quality of its ingredients. Some will be pleased, some won’t. That’s as it should be.
But some of them… let’s call them the Pastry Chefs… jump to conclusions and judge the meal as if it’s just a kind of pastry. They don’t take time to investigate what it is that they’ve been served. To them, everything is a pastry, and thus they only apply pastry standards to what they’ve been served.
Wouldn’t it seem strange to you if I served a chicken dinner and the diners responded, “As donuts go, this is very unsatisfying,” or “This is a first-rate donut!”
I welcome all kinds of opinions on my book as long as they examine it with the standards suitable for examining Epic Fantasy. But if a reader responds by judging the book as a Sunday School Lesson, a Religious Allegory, a Children’s Book, or a Formulaic “Happy Ever After” fairy tale… well, that reader should have read the label before he responded.
So, if you’re bothering to read the reviews of The Ale Boy’s Feast or any of the other books in The Auralia Thread series, here are a seven points to help you understand what the Food Critics have been served. Then you can decide if they’re giving it the right kind of attention, or if they’re judging a chicken dinner by how it fulfills the purposes of a donut.
1. The Ale Boy’s Feast is a novel of epic fantasy. Thus, we’re in the realm of make-believe and fairy tales, where magic is meant to suggest mysterious aspects of our own real world, but not to represent our own world literally.
2. The Ale Boy’s Feast is the fourth book in a series.
It is not a standalone novel. It is, in a manner of speaking, the last few scenes of a very long play.
This will be clear to any reviewers who read the introduction, who read the press materials that came with it, or who read the back cover carefully. To read this book first would be like reading the second half of The Return of the King before reading The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring, or The Two Towers.
Note how many reviewers complained about being confused by the book. Almost all of those readers admit that they read the end of the series first. Perhaps if they had read the series in order, they would not have suffered.
3. It’s an epic fantasy, but not an allegory.
It is far too elaborate, and explores many different themes and questions. Its characters are meant to be just that—characters—and not symbols or representatives of specific people or institutions in this world. This isn’t Pilgrim’s Progress. Nor is it The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe with an obvious Jesus figure. It may address some of the same themes, or occasionally remind you of passages from those books, but it is a meal of a very different nature.
4. It isn’t “Christian Fiction.”
Not every book that is written by a Democrat is “Left-Wing Fiction.” Not every book that is written by a scientist is a science book. A comedian might write a book that isn’t a comedy. A pastor might write a detective thriller in which religion is never discussed. And actors like, say, Mark Wahlberg, may profess Christian faith, but that doesn’t mean that their characters or movies are Christian movies.
Like Mark Wahlberg, or Fred Rogers of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” or J.R.R. Tolkien, or Johnny Cash… I am a Christian. But if you heard me tell a joke, it probably wasn’t a Christian joke. If you watched me cook up some gumbo, I doubt it was Christian gumbo. And when I write a fairy tale, it isn’t “Christian fiction” unless I am crafting a story with the specific intention of trying to persuade you on points about Christian faith. And I had no intention of doing that with The Auralia Thread.
I was, I admit, thinking very much about Art as I wrote these books. I couldn’t help it. Many of the characters in my stories are artists, and many of them have their lives changed by art. Should these books be shelved in a section called “Artist’s Fiction”? I doubt it. I’ve never seen that section in a bookstore.
And why should I? Good stories explore all kinds of themes.
Those who decide that my books are “Christian fiction” are going to expect a certain kind of thing, and they won’t get it. They’re going to be reading it through the wrong kind of lens. And they’ll probably end up frustrated.
But that’s because they were trying to drink a milkshake through a straw, when they weren’t holding a milkshake at all. It was a cake.
So if you come across reviews of this kind, positive or negative, please keep this in mind.
5. Some writers make it a top priority to entertain the reader; others write for other purposes.
Entertainers seek to give readers what readers expect, and to be sure that they are happy. Others, like me, write stories because they have certain questions on their mind, and they want to see where the questions lead them. This series led me on a journey in pursuit of some difficult questions. I came to understand some of them better. Others questions are still haunting me here, at the end of the series.
Thus, I am not surprised when readers realize that they still have some questions at the end of the series. That’s because there are big questions hanging in the air at the end, which I hope will lead readers back to the beginning of the story to think about them further. This is a series about characters who are trying to solve tremendous mysteries. They solve some of the mysteries, and are wiser for it. Other mysteries teach them humility, and they learn to live with the questions.
Readers who want the book to hand over all the answers are going to be frustrated. Many answers are provided. Others are there along the way for those who read more than one, and those who read very closely. Others… well, maybe you’ll find them, but I did not–the story became a way of asking the question. I hope that the journey is worthwhile for you anyway.
And if you are offended by a conclusion that is more complicated that Good Guys Defeating Bad Guys or “They lived happily ever after…”, you will be offended by this book.
6. This is a story about imperfect people.
Some of them kill. Some of them are killed, either by the wickedness of others, or by their own mistakes. Some of them are reckless in their relationships. Some of them are too fearful to take any risks at all. Some are poisoned, and some are poisoners.
If it troubles you to read about people who do terrible things, you may not want to read this book. If a reviewer is upset with me because I’ve written a book in which people behave badly, then the reviewer is interested in very different books than I am.
Me, I love literature from The Bible to Shakespeare, from Lord of the Flies to The Road, from The Lord of the Rings to The Tale of Despereaux. Characters do terrible things in all of those books. I learned things from all of them about storytelling.
And to the reviewer who was troubled when one or two of my characters appear in a state of undress, well… I am sorry to have offended you, but the characters in my world do not always wear clothes.
7. These are not children’s books.
Many children have read them, and many have enjoyed them. But the books were written for adults, and thus, while there is nothing explicit or gratuitous or pornographic in these stories, the characters do behave like imperfect adults, and there are political, spiritual, and sexual implications to many of their deeds. I make no apology for this.
Parents, you might want to read these stories before your children do to decide if they are age-appropriate. I’d say that, in general, these books are appropriate for ages 14 and up, but I have received some wonderful letters from 10-year-olds who showed remarkable discernment in their reading of these stories.
Having said that, I am grateful for those who take the time to express their thoughts on these books. But I do hope that The Ale Boy’s Feast will be seen for what it is: The last installment in a long and complicated story, an epic fantasy (not an allegory), and a saga about individuals and societies who are changed forever by the transforming power of art, which leads them from one kind of understanding to another.
You don’t have to like it. But please, before you respond, take the time to recognize what it is. Pixar’s movie Up is not a “Christian movie”—it is a story for the whole world, even though its primary director/storyteller is a Christian.
In the same way, I meant for the books in The Auralia Thread to be for the whole world. And I do hope that you enjoy them.