Monday, March 2, 2020

The Voices We Can’t Connect With

Hey everyone! Today’s post is on something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. It’s about what
A post by Mary Fan
it means when someone “can’t connect with the voice” of a book or story. While that’s a phrase most often used by agents and editors to reject writers, it’s an idea that readers experience as well when it comes to published books (they might phrase it differently in their reviews or conversation… they just couldn’t get into it, for example).

We’ve all been there. We pick up a book (or manuscript) that seems good based on the description/cover/recommendation/etc., but as we start to read, it just doesn’t resonate for some reason. We just can’t get lost in it. It doesn’t pull us in. Reading it feels like more of a chore than it should. We can’t necessarily pinpoint anything wrong with it… maybe the plot’s fine, maybe the characters seem like they should be interesting, maybe the world building is actually pretty cool. But there’s just this wall between us and the text.

Reading, of course, is extremely subjective. Sometimes, there is no reason why one thing clicks with us and another doesn’t. Maybe we just like Book A but not Book B, and that’s that.

But I do wonder if sometimes, there’s something more to it. As a kid, especially as a teenager, I had a hard time “connecting” with the books that were supposed to have been written for me. The YA books of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which were, of course, quite different than what’s being published today. I similarly had trouble “connecting” with the teen shows of that era. Looking back, I think the reason is because those pieces of fiction were about lives that had nothing to do with mine. Those of white, privileged, suburban, extroverted teens interested in sports and types of pop culture I had zero desire to get into. Everyone else seemed to love that stuff, though. Looking back, I think it’s because “everyone else” matched the description of the characters being depicted. And of course, the majority rules.

Anyone who’s taken a basic intro to psychology course (or even read a pop science article covering similar ground) knows that humans take mental shortcuts. We have to—it’s the only way to process the overwhelming amount of information surrounding us. So of course, when we’re reading or otherwise consuming media, it’s easier to “connect” with others who are like us. Those who share our backgrounds and cultures and affinities. Those who express themselves the same way we do. It’s how we are with in person relationships as well.

There’s a certain amount of empathy required to “connect” with or relate to somebody different. Somebody who maybe expresses themselves differently – who doesn’t smile when we’d smile, or laughs at what we think are inappropriate times, or isn’t as open about their feelings as we are (or, conversely, is more open than we’d like). Subconsciously, I think many of us know it. I, for one, mirror like nobody’s business. I’m a weirdo, and I learned long ago that this is an unforgivable crime, for which the punishment in respectable society is mockery or denial of existence. So I’ve found my mannerisms, the pacing of my words, and even my accent (which is pretty plain Midwestern American radio voice, but broadens around southerners and grows more clipped around northerners) changing to match that of the person I’m with (particularly when they’re a new person I’ve just met, or a person in power). It’s not on purpose—it just happens as some kind of survival instinct.

Anyway, back to reading/writing. Much has been said in the past few years about the continued dearth of books written by and about marginalized populations. Even though there’ve been many important steps taken toward a more equitable literary landscape, we still have a long way to go. Meanwhile, the demographics of American publishing remain as white and privileged as ever. Everyone on the reading side of things—editors/agents/reviewers/booksellers/consumers—want, of course, books they can fall into and “connect with” immediately. But maybe it’s time to think about why certain books “connect” more easily than others. Is it because the writer is similar to the reader? Because they were raised in the same kind of environment, like the same kinds of things, express themselves in similar ways? Or because the writer has gotten so good at mirroring what those in power have decided is “good”?

Who gets to decide what’s “good”? Who gets to decide what “quality” even means?

If we come across a book that in theory we should like, but can’t “connect” with it, is it simply a matter of subjective preference? Or are we, perhaps, taking a mental shortcut because it’s subtly too different, too difficult?

Is there an empathy deficit we need to address?

Are the voices we can’t “connect” with, perhaps, the ones we should be working even harder to delve into?

I don’t have the power to address these questions in a meaningful way. All I can do is consider them as a reader and try harder to read outside my comfort zone, even when a voice isn’t “connecting.” As a writer, well, mirroring, however much it works or doesn’t work, is a survival instinct.

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