You guys know “The Problem of Susan, ” yes? For those who don’t, the phrase refers to decades-long criticism of the handling of the eldest sibling, Susan Pevensie, from C.S. Lewis The Chronicls of Narnia series. Readers recognized right away that she got a raw deal when Lewis steered her from the intrigue, wonder and passion of Narnia, toward adulthood, lipstick, and boys. The question that was never settled sufficiently in devotees’ minds was “Why?”
Canon text left Susan hanging, and not in a way that flattered either her or Lewis. Was it because it was realistic that Lewis show one of the kids turning away? Because Susan wasn’t worthy of carrying both imagination and reality at the same time? Because Lewis, himself, couldn’t grasp the complex sexuality of a young girl verging into womanhood, thus he couldn’t fully write her story? No one knows, but the lack remains a glaring omission to the Narnia readership, still. Even Neil Gaiman broached the subject in his short story, “The Problem of Susan,” though he no more resolved the young woman’s quandry–a fate well-described in this Tmblr post.
I wholly think the word ‘quandry’ better addresses the situation, because where the word ‘problem’ only indicates to raise questions about, ‘quandry’ goes a step further, expressing uncertainty over how to find a solution. In other words, it means resolution is desired. To those concerned, the issue is a sore wound.
I realize this is all subjective, and for some, such quandries as ‘Susan’ are trifling points. I support that argument, though in this era of book reviews for visibility, how do you deal with otherwise great works that have a glaring plot hole? What can you do to right in your mind, an otherwise engaging piece of literature? Writing satisfying fanfic only soothes so far. Do you tell the author? If so, what do you say? How do you say it? As an author, how do you internalize such gaffs to better your writing? As a reader, how do you resolve the unresolved?
These questions are what bother me most and leave me convinced that such meticulous scrutiny of plot points or characterization isn’t a problem, but a quandry for which there is a solution. Writing is insular, but publishing is not. Anyone who’s endeavored there–even indie or self-published authors (if they’re doing it right) knows that getting a manuscript from pages to book is a collective process. It involves a string of talent, each bringing expertise to the page that if working properly, catches those kinds of shortcomings. For that reason, when I’m reviewing a book I don’t fault the author for otherwise well-written work. I fault the collective process that brought it to publication.
If a book is just terribly constructed from the beginning, I don’t hesitate to say so in my reviews. In fact, it kind of pisses me off to read a book that is just awfully written (that’s another rant). I’m not talking about horrific books that never should have seen ink. I’m referring to otherwise original, well-crafted literature, that fell down somewhere in the final phase of production. It’s the ones that just barely miss the mark of a cohesive work with subtle breaches like head-hopping, unresolved major arcs, dense backstory in chunky dialogue… Even a slip of those I can hold, but when one or a combo of those oversights repeat to form a blindspot in the writing, it detracts from my enjoyment of the story. Those are the ones that keep me up at night, and they run the gamut, from best-selling international names, to indie authors on SmashWords. And the drop is [almost] always in the final stages of writing, a rushed ending after careful construction of twisting plots, intriguing characters, wrenching conflicts. The care taken in the setup just isn’t there in the resolution.
Why? No crit partners? Are a lot of indie authors unwilling to pay out for solid editing? Are a lot of traditionally published authors unwilling to hold their contracted editing team to the fire on edits? Do authors reach a point that they just want the book published and just don’t give a shit? I don’t know, although I totally understand each of those scenarios. In the end, the writing is what shows it.
I really don’t read a lot–I don’t have time to–but when I do, I get very involved with the execution, the mechanics, the characters. I think like an editor more than mere pleasure reading can abide, and I always post reviews across various site. And… it’s not working for me. I’m putting the quiatus on reviewing books. I’m not saying I will never review a book again, because that’s not a solution, it’s an excuse. I want to be part of what attracts an audience to a great thing. I am, however, asserting, that for me, a solution to the quandry is to be part of an author’s crit phase, where my input is actually useful, can help shape a project for the better, before-the-fact. Instead of rating an author down on the completion for something that may not have been the her fault (though in the end that’s who’s blamed), I’d rather be a productive part of the process. It’s just too easy to give my 2 cents after the blood, sweat, and tears.
I understand that the way the industry is formed right now, we authors rely partly on book reviews to draw readers. We ask various folks to review our work, but why, exactly? To improve our ratings, or to improve our writing? Do we really want to know what people think after our words are cast into stone? What good does it really do, in the end? Can we be honest enough with ourselves to say?
So, I’m not doing as many reviews as I have been. That doesn’t mean I am disinterested in reading your book–you can always ask. What I’m saying–offering even– is that I would rather be part of your success along the road to publication and not a shaper of your statistics , after. I’d rather expend my energy on your crit rather than suffering the vantage point of 3.5 instead of 5 stars.
Fierce is author of the newly released Traveler Through Darkness, part of The Edge series from Decadent Publishing.
2 thoughts on “The Quandry of Susan – In Which I Offer Manuscript Crits Instead of Book Reviews as a Solution”
I think you have a good point there, and I’ve thought of it myself a little before. When I ask people for book reviews I say I want their honest opinion, but their honest opinions would be way more helpful BEFORE the book was published! The main problem for me is that I am completely broke (I’m a teacher but have been unable to find a job for the school year) and I can’t afford what most professional critiquing and editing services charge, whereas review bloggers will do it for free once the book is already published. It’s a double bind!
You make an excellent point. I also prefer to assist in the creation of a better book. And truth is, I would only be happy to rave about a book I love.
Yet we need reviews. Not so much for our benefite, but for readers who are trying to decide if they should buy our book. If authors won’t step up, then who will? And it is established for best selling authors to write a one sentence recommendation that basically says ‘if you like my writing, then you’ll like this book.’