Tue 26 May 2015
by Camille Gooderham Campbell
This post first appeared at the author’s website, Copy. Edit. Proof.
We all read through filters of one sort or another.
Some filters are highly specific. There’s expert knowledge — the cop who rolls his eyes over procedural inaccuracies, the doctor who shakes her head over medical impossibilities — and there’s genre expertise — the avid science fiction fan who recognizes themes and plots that seem fresh to more general readers, the 18th century literature student who recognizes allusions and in-jokes that most other readers would miss. Without the resources to hire expensive expert consultants at every turn, there’s not much an editor can do but hope nothing too egregious slips by.
Other filters are recognizably subjective. When a dude dismisses a story as chick lit, or a “serious” reader with a preference for award winners and the literary elite dismisses a story as fluff, a subjective filter is being applied — the story is being judged in comparison to the reader’s preferences. The reverse can happen, too; a fondness for a particular theme or interest in a set of characters can cause a reader to overlook prose issues or plot holes, and even fill in gaps and ascribe depth to the material that isn’t there. Genre conventions sometimes permit and even invite elements that would, in a different context, be met with scorn.
The most subjective filters of all are, of course, filters of emotion. It’s virtually impossible to be purely objective when reading a story by a spouse, child, or dear friend. Nor is it reasonable to expect objectivity or even a rational response when reading a story that triggers some past personal trauma.
Personally, I don’t think anyone is capable of reading entirely without filters. The reading experience is a combination of what the author gives to the story and what the reader takes from it, and any time perception and interpretation and taste come into play, we’re automatically applying our filters to what we’re taking in — sometimes even to the point of not actually hearing what’s being said or absorbing what’s on the page.
The big question is where the responsibility lies for recognizing those filters.
One can’t say that the end reader “ought to” realize that s/he is reading through a complex set of preferences, biases, emotions, and possibly specialized knowledge. That’s not a reasonable demand, because the end reader (by which I mean someone who buys or borrows or is given a book to read for his/her own pleasure — the end consumer, in a reading sense; the general public) isn’t answerable to anyone for his/her reading. If I choose to pick up a random book and read it, I don’t have to justify that choice or provide a critical assessment of that book; it’s just… what I happen to be reading. We are all, sometimes, end readers and entitled to just enjoy (or, er, not enjoy) a story without having to explain ourselves.
On the other end of the spectrum, publishing professionals absolutely must recognize their personal filters and guard against them. When choosing and recommending reading material for others, it’s staggeringly important to be self-aware and to strive for an impartial, objective assessment. Particularly when it comes to rejections, for example, a responsible editor needs to make choices based on readership preferences rather than personal preferences. I’m not perfect, but I do my best, and it’s not unheard of for me to ask one of my co-editors for an additional opinion when it comes to a story that I recognize to be outside of my individual comfort zone (e.g., “guy humour” — sometimes I need to ask a male editor about those ones, because I *know* I’m just not appreciating all there is to be appreciated). I’m including professional reviewers and librarians in this category, with huge respect, both for their roles in recommending books to readers and because there’s an expectation of impartiality and having the best interests of the end reader at heart.
But what about independent book bloggers, commenters on stories at EDF, social reading enthusiasts connecting on Goodreads and LibraryThing? Somewhere between a public professional life in reading (editors, publishers, professional reviewers, librarians) and a completely private life in reading (someone who just reads for pleasure or self-edification and doesn’t talk about it), there’s a grey area of what one might call personal commentary. There’s no professional requirement or standard to start a book blog, to write a review and post it on a social reading site, to get involved in commenting on stories published online. And there’s absolutely no way that an external source could impose moral/intellectual requirements or standards on personal commentary, because it’s just that — personal. Websites can ask for courtesy and delete responses that fail to comply, block specific words earmarked as inappropriate, or hold comments for moderation until a staffer has a chance to review them for suitability, but there’s no way to make participants recognize or turn off their natural filters.
The question is, do readers engaging in personal commentary have any responsibility within themselves to recognize and/or acknowledge that there may be filters involved in their perceptions?
I don’t know.
On the one hand, I want to recognize every reader’s right to have a genuine and natural opinion without worrying about what it means or whether s/he should feel that way. On the other hand, as soon as one engages in expressing an opinion in public and to strangers, isn’t there some responsibility to balance that opinion with an acknowledgement of the factors that might influence it?
And then, I suppose that’s the funny thing about responsibility in general. You can’t make someone else take it. It has to come from within.
Camille Gooderham Campbell is Managing Editor of Every Day Fiction and one third of Every Day Publishing. She has an Honours B.A. specializing in English Literature from the University of Toronto, where she was privileged to study creative writing with Professor J. Edward Chamberlin. She has also studied advertising copywriting and marketing communications at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.