I read my fair share of books. For work (mostly). For pleasure (not nearly often enough). For the delicious feeling of inadequacy that comes from reading REALLY good writers and hoping to someday, somehow write something like that. Most of what I read, I like. But there is this rare but wonderful thing that sometimes happens to me while reading. Sometimes, a book or a story will just knock me flat on my ass. Like, can't think of anything else, can't talk about anything else, on the verge of tears it's so poignant flat.
I was reminded of this while reading Pasha Malla's post about the thrill of reading stolen books over at Open Book Toronto. The concept of theft adding excitement to a book is probably pretty universal (while I've never stolen a book myself, I'm sure any twelve-year-old girl will tell you that no lip gloss has ever looked as good at that recently nicked Lip Smackers from Shoppers Drug Mart). What this post really got me thinking about, though, is what makes one perfectly good book resonate so much more powerfully with any given reader than another equally good book. The last thing that I can remember being completely flabbergasted by was actually "Being Like Bulls" from The Withdrawal Method. I enjoyed the whole book, of course, but that story took me completely out of my own life for a couple of days. I was holy-crap-I-can't-believe-this-exists-excited about it.
Long story short, Niagara Falls (literally the falls themselves, and figuratively the town) has dried up. The former tourist trap of a town is a graveyard of sorts, peopled with sad folk holding on to former glories. Wineries on the outskirts of the town are ridden with shadowy "squatter colonies." And a guy who still works at his parents' long-dead souvenir shop makes a massive error in judgement, informed by numerous situation-specific assumptions and fears, ends up running over a squatter child with his car. It's a lot more complex than that. But just read it, would ya?
It sounds pretty cool, I'll give it that, but surely not every reader was as floored by it as I was. But why was I so into it?
Well, to begin with, I had just come off of an eighteen-month obsession with post-apocalyptic literature. Cormac McCarthy was (and secretly kind of still is) my hero. But I'd grown tired of the common troupes: The impending birth of a child into a world of chaos and constant danger. The omnipresent threat, or insinuation, or explicit practise, of cannibalism. While others might not exactly call this story post-apocalyptic in the sense that The Road is, the whole vibe is pretty bleak. And "Bulls" had none of what I'd come to expect. Just well-drawn characters in a crazy situation, still eeking out normal lives.
I'm also always very taken by stories that have a male lead that I can fully see in my mind's eye. This probably has something to do with the fact that I have a much harder time writing male characters than female ones (probably not an all that uncommon problem for any young writer when it comes to writing characters of the opposite sex). This story was full of flawed, interesting, multidimensional men.
And, as a bonus, it was just damn good writing.
But taken together, all these factors make me wonder if a writer can ever really anticipate who his/her most receptive audience will be. I'm pretty sure Pasha Malla didn't set out to write a story that would appeal to female literary types in their mid-to-late twenties who happen to really like post-apocalyptic literature and complicated male leads. That's not an "audience." It's an anomaly.
So, that leaves me to ask, how can writers really know who will or will not like their writing? It seems it's completely, maybe terrifyingly, out of our control!