Should Authors Value Fans Only—Or Do They Also Need Opponents?

In this era when authors are expected to spend much of their time seeking the approval of readers—by “building a platform,” doing blog tours, conducting interviews, and praying for 5-star Amazon reviews—it may be helpful to look at how writers of an earlier generation used opposition to their work to make themselves better writers.

My friend and colleague Diana Glyer wrote a remarkable book called The Company They Keep: C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien as Writers in Community (Kent State UP, 2007). It analyzes the ways the group of writers known as the Inklings influenced one another. This group, which included Lewis, Tolkien, Charles Williams, Owen Barfield, and others, met regularly for seventeen years to read and critique each other’s work. Much of the influence these friends had on one another was positive and friendly, as they supported each other as resonators and collaborators, and as they promoted each other’s books through reviews and by other means.

But my favorite chapter of The Company They Keep is chapter 4, entitled “Opponents: Issuing Challenge.” I urge you to read it for yourself to get the full treatment of some of the fascinating encounters among these authors, but here I want to highlight a few things I learned as a writer about the value of Opponents.

“Oh, God, no more Elves!”

Can you imagine the privilege of sitting in a room and listening to J.R.R. Tolkien read from a draft of The Lord of the Rings? How would you like to relax by the fire and hear C.S. Lewis read a work-in-progress called The Screwtape Letters? That’s what the Inklings got to do, but they weren’t always happy about it. Tolkien, for example, didn’t like The Screwtape Letters. He was embarrassed that the book Continue reading

Why I Don’t Watch Movies Based on Books I Care About

I have never seen The Lord of the Rings movies and probably never will. Whenever I have mentioned this to anyone, the most common response is, “But they’re so good.”

The fact that they’re good makes me want to see them even less.

Why?

I read the books many years ago, and the experience was so powerful that I walked around for days only partially aware of my own reality. Scenes from those novels played in my mind almost as vividly as my own real memories. I don’t want anyone else’s scenes to replace the ones in my head, any more than I would want someone’s film adaptation of my childhood to replace memories of my actual childhood.

That’s why I have stopped going to movies made of books that are really important to me. Doing so has usually led to disappointment. The worst examples are movies made from the books of Ernest Hemingway, who is an important writer to me. I have never seen a satisfying movie based on one of Hemingway’s better books. The better the book, the worse the movie. If I had never read the books, maybe I could have enjoyed some of those movies, but I regret seeing every one of them.

I watched the Robert Redford version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby long before I had adopted this practice of avoiding such films. It is a decent and enjoyable movie, but now I can never read Gatsby without picturing Continue reading