Humble pie

I had an interesting reaction to the last newsletter I sent out, in which I was talking about touring and how, along with the hard-working booksellers and the comrades-in-adversity escorts, I loved being in touch with readers–

“The intelligence of the people who read my books never fails to humble me, their grasp of all those subtle points I put in knowing not one in a hundred will pick them up’e2’80’94except they do.”

And I received this reaction to my remark:

‘e2’80’9cI find this offensive.

‘e2’80’9cYou are more intelligent than most of the rest of us because it takes an intelligent person to write the subtle points that maybe one out of a hundred will pick up, and it takes an intelligent person to grasp your subtle points? And the rest of us are just run-of-the-mill ding dongs?

‘e2’80’9cMary always talks about how brilliantly intelligent she and Holmes are. Does the author say that because she believes she is intelligent with wit that is grasped by few others?

‘e2’80’9cIt doesn’t do for the more intelligent author to offend her less intelligent readers.

‘e2’80’9cI own (bought) all of your books. I will read the new ones with new eyes.’e2’80’9d

Reading what I wrote (I’e2’80’99m not even going to plead the exhaustion of tour here as an excuse) I guess it did come across as patronizing. It was meant as the reverse, a celebration of the people who choose to read my books.

I have a number of what I know are unusual interests. Like many writers, I let those interests surface in my writing. Unlike a lot of writers, I often don’e2’80’99t explain them, just let them appear and if people snatch them up and say ‘e2’80’9cAha! I know what this is!’e2’80’9d then great, it’e2’80’99s like a shared joke, a nudge and a wink across a crowded room. However, what percentage of the general population has spent time with Koine Greek? Or know the words to Gilbert and Sullivan’e2’80’99s ‘e2’80’9cGondoliers’e2’80’9d? How many readers of LOCKED ROOMS have read Hammett’e2’80’99s ‘e2’80’9cDead Yellow Women’e2’80’9d?

Not many, because most people have better things to do with their time, and most people have their own sets of odd and unusual interests about which I know nothing.

Should a reader be asked to do homework before picking up a novel? Of course not, how utterly tedious. My job as a writer is to entertain, not make people pass exams, and one of the ways I do it is to toss small scraps of arcane knowledge into the mix, knowing, as I said, that nine out of ten people reading the thing won’e2’80’99t know the reference, and why the hell should they? We’e2’80’99re not talking about basic educational principles here, but useless trivia. And I try to shape it in a way that makes it seamless, so when, for example, I make reference to a character in that Hammett short story, those who know the story will be given that ‘e2’80’9cAha!’e2’80’9d moment, but those who don’e2’80’99t know it will simply read on with the character in my own story, their experience none the worse for not catching the reference.

If I’e2’80’99ve made people think, while they’e2’80’99re reading, that they are missing things, then I have been failing at my job. If I’e2’80’99ve been making people feel intimidated and dumb, I can’e2’80’99t imagine why anyone would buy one of my books.

Perhaps I should have used the word ‘e2’80’9cknowledge’e2’80’9d instead of ‘e2’80’9cintelligence’e2’80’9d in that newsletter passage. But ‘e2’80’9cknowledgeable’e2’80’9d isn’e2’80’99t as appreciative a word as ‘e2’80’9cintelligent’e2’80’9d, and the point I was trying to make was how deeply, humbly impressed I was with the people who read my books. As if I’e2’80’99d been asked to give a talk to a group of undergraduates and walked into the lecture hall to find it full of my professors. Why would they want to listen to me? Why would such bright and educated people want to read my silly books?

I can’e2’80’99t imagine. But I’e2’80’99m grateful they do. I’e2’80’99m grateful that you do, O Newsletter Critic, and I shall try to be more careful of my choice of words in the future.

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  1. Jacqui on August 21, 2005 at 4:44 pm

    I read the Russell books last year, in 8th grade, and I didn’t feel like I was missing anything. I quite enjoyed finding all the various quotes in their natural habitat. I read so many classic books from trying to locate that one elusive quote. Now I can just rattle some quote from Mary Russell, and everyone looks at me like I am from Mars! 😉

  2. KB on August 21, 2005 at 4:44 pm

    Well, excuuuuuuuuuuse me! I consider myself intelligent and knowlegable….and still I’m sure I miss some of the nuances. Does that mean I enjoy your books less? Or was offended by your remarks? Of course not. Does that mean I think you believe you’re better than the rest of us? Oh, please. You’re a talented writer with lots of interests (I’d call them “obscure” but then you’d say the same of mine!). You’ve let the comments sting a bit, now let them pass, Laurie. You can’t be accountable for how each of your readers reads or interprets your words, and for each comment like the one you mentioned you’re likely to receive 100 that will disagree.

  3. Anonymous on August 21, 2005 at 5:47 pm

    Wow! Some people go out of their way to find things to be prickly about. I took your comments exactly as you explained in today’s blog. I consider myself as wise as the average bear 🙂 , but am always pleased to discover a previously hidden gem when I reread or listen to one of your books. You just keep writing, and we’ll keep reading!

  4. Rebecca on August 21, 2005 at 9:39 pm

    Ditto what everyone else has said. The hidden jokes in your books–the “Easter eggs,” you might call them–make them more enjoyable to read, not less. The “aha!” moment of catching one is a lot of fun!

  5. Anonymous on August 22, 2005 at 12:30 am

    I was just wondering have you heard of Sam the world’s ugliest dog? I post the link, but I don’t think I can here.

  6. Anonymous on August 22, 2005 at 4:04 am

    Missing something? Of course I am – and how wonderful! When I become all-knowing and all-seeing, surely life will become altogether boring! And speaking of “aha” moments, how about that wonderful one that comes when you read a dearly loved book for the umpteenth time – and spot something new? For my part, I fervently hope you keep making them deep.

  7. WDI on August 22, 2005 at 11:20 am

    OK, so I admit that, when I read the original post, I wondered how many of the subtleties I was catching and whether or not I qualified as an “intelligent” reader. For a few seconds. Then I recognized the intent of the passage as being exactly what you just explained. So yes, I understand how the words could be misinterpreted, but humbly suggest that the reader could have been as gracious in seeking clarification as you were in explaining your intent.

    I, for one, am endlessly grateful for your willingness and ability to write books that seamlessly combine intellectual challenge and entertainment. And to do it in such a way that I can choose the extent to which I engage in the more profound questions and issues (depending on my mood when I’m rereading an old favorite) — now, that’s a good trick! Note that I’m not just talking about the winks and nods here, but the bigger issues that inform each of your books.

    I’m glad you include obscure references and inside jokes — I figure they’re part of the spirit of humor that pervades the Russel books. I have a feeling that, even if I don’t recognize them when I read them, the books wouldn’t be as amusing without them. If that makes any sense at all 🙂

    Tangential to this, and speaking of larger issues, I had a delightful conversation with my daughter about one of her last college term papers (on the role of women in early Christianity and its representation in New Testament scripture). I told her about your descriptions of feminine representations of Yahweh in the Old Testament, which she found fascinating and very complementary to what she was working on. I thought that was pretty damned cool 🙂

  8. Jennifer Ice on August 22, 2005 at 12:39 pm

    Dear Laurie,
    All I can say to the person who was offended is – Get over it! I took your comment as a complement and am always a little smug when I catch one of your surprises in a book because I know not everyone does. Also about homework; I do mine. When you said The Game was connected to Kim I went out and read it. I hadn’t read it before and I loved it so much I was mad at my teachers for not requiring it at school. I felt the same way when I read Dashiell Hammett before reading Locked Rooms. Why aren’t the schools having kids read the Thin Man? Students could learn a lot from Hammett’s writing style and enjoy a good book too. I got so much more out of Locked Rooms after following Russell’s steps around San Francisco. So please, continue giving us homework and don’t let the naysayers change anything you do.

  9. 2maple on August 22, 2005 at 1:19 pm

    To your poor commenting reader, how sad to go through life so intimidated and defensive. I remember reading your comment and thinking ‘e2’80’9cshould I have known that ‘e2’80’93 no beacuase I haven’e2’80’99t read any Dashell Hammett. Maybe I should sometime’e2’80’9d. You commented on what I like about your books or this blog’e2’80’a6the many threads and bright curiousity ‘e2’80’a6 Half the fun is having all sorts of doors left cracked open ‘e2’80’a6 to wonder about or not; to go through, if you want to, or not.

  10. Erin on August 22, 2005 at 6:40 pm

    As so many have said already, the hidden references are a wonderful bonus to reading your work. They are like tangents to the story. If you know what they are about, then you are excited at recognizing something and if you haven’t, then it is something new to explore. Subtle reading recommendations.

    Jasper Fforde says in one of his novels that “failure sharpens the mind wonderfully.” Obviously, not having read a particular work does not count as failure, but it rather fits anyway. The realization that I don’t understand a reference urges me to research the subject, thereby broadening my knowledge base and your novels often cause this realization. I’d like to thank you for that=)

  11. Anonymous on August 25, 2005 at 6:55 am

    You wander away from the blog for a while, and when you come back, you find everything from cockroaches to the new title; what a great world it is.
    Re the present post, I must say fiddle-de-dee. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have reread (for perhaps the 10th time?)a book by Dorothy L. Sayers and found I understood or recognized a quote for the first time. That’s one of the great pleasures of her books and the Laurie King books as well. It seems to be human nature to fret about whether one is being patronized or made “not special.” To concur with my fellow bloggers, let’s note our unique characteristics (which may produce odd references in everyone’s prose) and appreciate good writing and not sweat it. –Meredith T.

  12. PS Mitchell on August 25, 2005 at 6:29 pm

    OH NO! I didn’t see it as anything but what you meant (forgive me – reader not writer)

    All of the people that I have recommended your books to have wide, wild and often obscure interests, and most of them have read extensively, classics included.

    One of the reasons I find your writing deeply satisfying IS because I never know what I’m going to learn (Dead Sea floating, straining coffee through the teeth – how you could, in one small page, make us love Dr. Watson too. Having read your books a bazillion (conservative estimate) times, I enjoy discovering new facets.

    Or, as Neal Stephenson said:

    ‘e2’80’9cYour younger nerd takes offense quickly when someone near him begins to utter declarative sentences, because he reads into it an assertion that he, the nerd, does not already know the information being imparted. But your older nerd has more self-confidence, and besides, understands that frequently people need to think out loud. And highly advanced nerds will furthermore understand that uttering declarative sentences whose contents are already known to all present is part of the social process of making conversation and therefore should not be construed as aggression under any circumstances.’e2’80’9d
    ‘e2’80’94From the book, Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson

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