What happens when readers disagree with the end of a novel? What happens when reviewers think it shouldn’t have been written at all? Who is the final authority when everyone has an opinion?

Prunella Smith: Worlds Within Worlds by Tahlia Newland (AIA Publishing, 2014) answers, “Yes.”

The book follows Ella Smith, an author and editor who faces online bullying after posting an honest, but negative review about another author’s work. She simultaneously edits a book which she believes tells the character’s story incorrectly, and deals with a real-life stalker.

Two of the worlds explored in the novel – the anonymous world of the internet and the fictional world of the novel Ella edits – both suggest that a novel’s true reality is created by a combination of authors, readers, and reviewers. This concept then interacts with the real world of Ella’s life to show that an individual’s identity is similarly constructed, and that there is no “real” self, but only the personas presented to others.

The novel-within-the-novel follows Kelee, a young woman who takes her identity into her own hands, abandoning the clan she was born into and fleeing with her lover, Slade, to a rival clan to live in peace. It appears that Kelee’s identity is forged in the fires of her own choices, but the book sets up an interesting conundrum when Ella reaches the climax of the novel, where Slade dies during the escape.

Kelee herself intrudes into the narration, saying, “This was not how it ended” (162). She insists that Slade did not die and begs Ella to convince the author to change the ending, saying, “You have to change it. Make it true” (165). Ella suggests to the author that having Slade live allows Kelee to develop more independently, shaping her destiny rather than being shaped by grief. She also argues that readers will prefer the romantic couple to remain together.

The author refuses. “I agree that a lot of readers won’t like it, but it will make an impact and that’s what I’m aiming for” (187).

Here’s a question: If readers won’t like the book because of this twist, is it still a good idea? What if the book receives negative reviews as a result? Was the author still correct to tell the story the way she saw it?

Ella clearly believes the answer is no. Throughout the book, she engages in online battle with a bully named Dita, whose terribly written book received a poor review from her. Dita thinks himself a genius, saying the book “will no doubt be a Pulzer Prize winner” (9, misspelling intentional) and attempting to destroy Ella’s online credibility. Ella’s review called out his interpretation of his book’s world and suggested that he told the story incorrectly. Her honesty challenged his identity as an author, so he tries to destroy hers in vengeance.

Ella struggles with the emotional pain of Dita’s attacks and uses meditation to remind herself that they are just words: “The me he abuses is merely an electronic reflection of an ephemeral I” (171). But if Ella’s electronic self is not part of her true self, then why does it pain her so much to see it abused? Why does Dita react so violently to criticism of his work? Like Kelee, both authors think they create their own identities, and both experience great upset when some other force tries to define them differently.

By refusing to accept the reality of Kelee’s story as told by its author and by challenging Dita’s work, Ella invokes the Death of the Author trope, which states that a writer’s intentions with his or her work don’t matter any more than the interpretations of the readers. To Ella, Slade survived, and so Kelee’s story ends with her and Slade riding off to their new lives together (277), despite the actual author not choosing this ending. Similarly, she sticks to her guns about her opinion on Dita’s work, despite his forceful attempts to make her change her mind.

Yet she also fights against his negative reviews of her work and resents her publisher for turning down a sequel to her own novel, Catnip Creek. Where others are concerned, she has no problem with Death of the Author, but for herself, she sticks to her own perception of who she is.

Like Dita, she seeks to craft her own identity. Unlike him, she realizes over the course of the book that she can’t.

Though Ella never changes her mind about Kelee’s story needing to have Slade survive, she does change her mind about Dita. After extensive emotional pain, she realizes “it takes two to fight” and that she “could loosen up a bit” (229). She then agrees to take down her negative review of Dita’s book in exchange for the cessation of his bullying. She questions if this makes her a coward, but feels “as if a load has been lifted” (241). Dita’s attacks, based on defending his own identity, have forced Ella to question her own and redefine her staunch stance against bad works. She eventually creates an alternate persona through which to post negative reviews so that she can maintain her vigilance without endangering her “real” online self (264).

Who is Ella now, then? She retains her opinions about Kelee’s story, but she reshapes herself to be less harsh, according to Dita’s definition of her. She is a hybrid identity, a creation both of her own choices and the impositions of outsiders, just as Kelee is a hybrid of her determination to shape her destiny and the traumas inflicted by her author. The self-made woman is a myth; no one defines themselves without the interference of others.

The version of Ella at the end of the book bears little resemblance to the one at the beginning. She has been re-formed by the identities assigned to her by other people. There is no definite “Ella,” only the shifting woman who changes each day according to her interactions with others.

The myth of self-determination shatters in this book and forces the reader to question how much of the way they see themselves is real, how much of it is imposed, and how much the distinction matters. We are all hybrids, half ourselves, half created by others, and we present a different version of those “selves” to every person we meet. They are each readers of the life stories of which we are the authors. Their interpretations are just as valid as our own.

Who is Ella?

It depends. Who are you?

***

Buy Prunella Smith: Worlds Within Worlds on Amazon.com and visit Tahlia Newland’s website to see more of her work.

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4 thoughts on “The Myth of Self-Determination (A book review)

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful analysis of my book. I didn’t think it through in these terms before I wrote it. It just came out that way. But it’s great to have someone look at it in such depth and pull out this layer of meaning.

  2. Fantastic summary and review of book Amy.

    As readers I know we sometimes disagree with the ending. Divergent series female lead Tris third book ending for example. Ok Veronica Roth a happy ending would not have changed the outcome of the series and Tris for all her heartache deserved better.

    So where as an author do you keep to your own guns and write the story as you see it, or write to the popular masses what is current or expected. Throw in a disgruntle cyber bully and an over bearing publicist and welcome to an authors’ nightmare.

    Sounds like the book was well written and the conflict between several levels of reader author relationships sounds intriguing. I can’t wait to pick up a copy and dig into this one.

    Thanks again for the review, I have no doubt I would not have considered reading it had you not written this.

    šŸ™‚

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