A Difficult Read: Who's Responsible for How a Story Makes A Reader Feel?

An author with whom I've been working on a YA novel due to publish in the fall heard from a reader who essentially was asking the author to explain whether and how the teen protagonist in his story is reconciled in any significant way with the horrific antagonist figures in the story. The reader wanted to know this in order to understand in advance how "difficult" this book would be for her to read.

This situation raises the question of who, ultimately, is responsible for how a story effects a reader. In my opinion an author is obligated only to tell a story that is whole, to tell a story that is true to the characters in that story. But an author is not obligated to give readers a comfortable or happy experience, nor is an author obligated to give readers an uncomfortable or difficult experience. An author is obligated to offer readers an experience, yes, but what that experience is going to be for a reader is not something an author can know. Whether the author's story is difficult or easy, comfortable or uncomfortable, how that story makes a reader feel is controlled solely by the reader. Every reader experiences a story differently.

What one reader may find beautiful, another reader may find strange. What one reader may find emotional, another reader may find bland. What one reader may find difficult, another reader may find run-of-the-mill. Putting the responsibility for the reader's emotional reaction to a story in the hands (and hearts) of the reader is exactly what a good storyteller does.

And if a story ignites emotional response in a reader at levels that reach "difficult" or "painful" or "beautiful" or "unforgettable" proportions? If a story makes a reader cry or laugh or anger or wonder? if a story, in fact, makes a reader uncomfortable? Then the storyteller has done their job. They've provided a reader with an experience that makes a reader feel something. And the more a reader feels--even if it's discomfort--the deeper and stronger that story probably is, the closer that story is probably coming to expressing some universal truths about humanity in all its forms--the beautiful and the comfortable, the ugly and the difficult.

If emotions are getting too high, if discomfort levels are getting too intense, a reader can stop reading the story that's causing such feelings. But the brilliant secret about great stories, of course, is that sometimes they're impossible to put down no matter how much we want to put them down. And why? Because most of us want to have deeply emotional experiences when we're immersed in a story, most of us want to feel a whole array of feelings when we're in the world of a story, even if that means we're knowingly being taken out of our comfort zones, knowingly being faced with things we would rather not face. 

The thrill of story can be the thrill of the amusement park ride: Sometimes we love the ride and detest the ride at the same time, but we love that juxtaposition of extreme feelings the ride raises in us and we buy our ticket knowing that's the experience we're going to have. We have no choice but to ride it out to the end (face it, we can put a story down if we need a break; no such luxury with an amusement park ride!) because we also love how we feel when it's over—alive! Even if we are shaky and mad and swear we'll never do it again!

We all tend to take stories personally. And when a story has moved us in any sort of extreme way, it's may be easier for us to blame an author for surprising us, or angering us, or melting our hearts, or making us uncomfortable rather than looking at something in our own lives and experiences to figure out why a story has had such a significant effect on us and has left us reeling with feelings hard to control or manage. Experiencing story can be messy; and when we're experiencing stories that touch our humanity in good or bad ways, experiencing story can be as messy as life itself. That's a mess some of us would rather avoid at all costs. But we can't avoid it in real life, and rather than avoid it in stories, I suggest we allow ourselves to experience the mess by means of the very best guides we have to get us safely through: Authors. The people who pour all of life into stories that in turn give us what we need to feel wholly and deeply.

The novel referenced in this post is BREATH TO BREATH by Craig Lew, to be published in November by Little Pickle Press. And I won't lie—the story is a graphic and tough one. It is also whole and true to the characters in the story. I have no doubt readers are going to feel something as they engage in the story experience Lew is offering. Some will find it difficult, some will find it sad, some will find it angering, some will find it positive. Whatever a reader feels as they read and experience this story is the right feeling for that reader to feel--and the depth and range of feelings felt by readers will be testament to a story well told by an author whose only obligation has been to move readers by sharing one story that touches a side of our shared humanity.

(BREATH TO BREATH can be pre-ordered: https://pubslush.com/project/6751)

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