In one of my writer crit groups, I was informed that I was “a tough read.” I was curious what they meant by that as it wasn’t the first time I had heard that charge. Of course, their answer was “have you looked at your story?”
It was a little trunk piece that I had taken out to noodle with. It was basically the narrative of a woman who’d grown up as a slave, worked in the Underground Railroad, and lived through Emancipation. There were all sorts of vivid accounts of the horrors that occurred around her. A horror story where the horror was in the reality of her world.
And it was a tough read.*
There is a dual nature to reader expectation when it comes to escaping into a novel. For some, they want to be transported to a world to get away from their own, where a book is strictly a vehicle for entertainment. For others, they want to embed themselves in another world as a way of examining the world around them, which isn’t to say that they don’t want to be entertained along the way.
For example, Devil’s Marionette was tough for me to write. I wrote it from a painful, angry place as I had been thinking about the struggle of black artists against the pressures and expectations of the community, the failure to live up to that unspoken obligation, and the yoke of a history of racism. So I whole-heartedly agreed with reviewer, Michele Lee, when she wrote of it:
Yet despite this immersive, and painfully open experience of being each character as hundreds of years of hatred and racism crushes down on them, the reader is left with the same feeling as someone who witnesses something beautiful or terribly in a quiet woods. It’s almost as if this pain is clear and known, but we are not supposed to speak of it, or even admit that we know it’s there.
The aura or spirit of this book far out shadows the actual story within the pages. It’s left me feeling not thrilled, or entertained, but uneasy, a perfect tone for a horror novella to strike, but one not that makes experiencing it an entirely pleasant experience.
I like to write from real and painful places. I like to make people uncomfortable. I love to challenge them and defy expectations. That’s pretty much my philosophy/m.o. Admittedly, part of that is a function of who I am as a person. I hate to be put into a box or be easily labeled (or as Chesya Burk puts it, I’m “not happy until every side is pissed off at [you] in a debate”). So when people hear that I’m a Christian writer (not a label I would use for myself), they come to my work with a certain amount of expectations. An anthology edited by me, Dark Faith, brought to mind for many a collection of Christian tracts. Until they picked it up and realized my philosophy was present there, too. Defying and challenging. It means when they pick up Orgy of Souls expecting a certain kind of story about faith, they get a wholly other. (Ironic on two fronts: 1) they forget that I’m writing with Wrath James White, known as Mr. Light & Fluffy Writer to his peers and fans; and 2) I continue to get emails from folks telling me how much they loved Orgy of Souls because it was a tricky topic and a journey they didn’t expect).
The same process is at work in my Knights of Breton Court trilogy. I know it’s not an easy read. Besides being partly based on my former neighborhood, a lot of the stories represent the day-to-day reality of some of the homeless teenagers I was working with. A scary and dark enough place before I added trolls and zombies and magic. But I also wanted to carve out a strange new world for the reader to immerse themselves in. An uncomfortable world, an unfamiliar world, yet a very real feeling world, which prompted one reviewer to say of it
It would be wrong of me to say “I liked this book” in the same way it would be wrong to say “I like drugs / gang warfare” due to the very nature of the subject matter but in my mind a book like this isn’t there to be “liked”, it’s there to be consumed, appreciated, inwardly digested and above all to make you think, to open your perceptions. For this reason this book is a triumph, I can honestly say that this novel has made me think about the world and people around me more than any other book has for a long time.
I love to hear stories I’m not used to or explore worlds completely new to me. I love the new experience of reading. I know that difficult reads aren’t everyone’s idea of pop entertainment. And authors who relish being difficult reads have to walk that fine line of entertainment and “substance” (and sometimes art and pretension). I write what I write because of who I am, part of that wonderful alchemy that is creation. After that, the story belongs to the reader.
*Of course, “tough read” could simply refer to it being a trunk story. But I’m choosing to ignore that possibility.