Reader-response 2.0

by mollykl

Now that I’m out of school I’m getting back to reading for fun.  Once I find an author I like (I’m reading a lot of mysteries right now) I’ll search for other books and information.  several of the authors I’ve been reading lately have websites, which isn’t suprising, since everyone, yours truly included, seems to have a website. What I find interesting is the way authors are using their websites to keep in touch with readers. Readers now have the opportunity to learn more about the historical and political background of characters (ok, I don’t know how many other people care about that, but I’m a dork and do). Suzanne Arruda’s Jade del Camereon series or Clare Langley-Hawthorne’s An Edwardian State of Mind blog are some great examples of authors using the internet and their blogs to give more depth to characters and stories. I am somewhat religious with checking back on Amazon for new titles from authors I like, since Amazon is usually only a little behind Bowker’s Books in Print on currency. (And a big thank you to Drexel, I pay you roughly $45,000 dollars for my MLIS, and two days after I’m done with school you yank my access to the library databases? WTF?) I like to know what to expect and when. There are several titles being released this year that aren’t even on Amazon yet – but I learned about them through the author’s blog.

Even beyond just getting background information an author’s website is a way to have some contact with the author, and for the author to have contact with readers. Some authors, like J.R. Ward have message boards, where readers can talk with her and each other. On nearly every website there is a contact form, although some authors, like Jacqueline Winspear who writes the “Maisie Dobbs” series about a female investigator in post-World War I, admit that they may not be able to respond to each contact. I can pretty much guarantee you that there’s no way Stephenie Meyer can respond to all of her e-mail, since that would be from every SINGLE teenage girl in the continental U.S..  But through posts readers can keep up and feel a sense of kinship and community. Websites and blogs are the book group you can belong to, no matter where you are.

Which brings me to my question: how much of that contact is reflected in the author’s work? J.R. Ward’s fans are particularly rabid (and I mean that with love) and vocal. Do their impressions and views of characters ever alter the way she sees her own creations? I would not have the end of the latest Maisie Dobb’s book coming – what inspired Winspear to set her character on the path to recovery from PTSD, especially given that her “shell-shock” was one of the  outstanding hallmarks of the character? I know from reading interviews with Winspear that she has had contact with doctors who treat patients with PTSD – did her contact with them have anything to do with her character development?

When I was getting my under-graduate degree in English Lit, I was a big fan of reader-response criticism, because I really felt that while the author’s own intent was important most readers could never really understand it fully. Everyone brings their own understanding and experience to a reading, so that is what matters most. Now we have the interesting  concept that those very readers have gone beyond just changing the story and meaning through their reading experience, but also, through their contact with the author, possibly altering the story from the outset.