A fan recently told me about a weird argument she’d had with her friends. She was telling them that Hunger Games reminded her of the Uglies series, and they responded that I must have copied my ideas from HG, because it’s so popular. She pointed out that Uglies was published in 2005 and HG in 2008, but they would not believe her, because HG was EVERYWHERE and therefore it was first.
This is a common human response to reality: We comprehend the world not by its own logic, but by the logic of how we encountered it. In other words, whatever we heard first must be more true and more real and more first than all the other versions out there.
This happens a lot with urban legends. You know, you tell the story of the Mexican Pet to a bunch of people and someone complains, “No, the rat-pet was from Venezuela, not Mexico!” This person has, of course, heard the same urban legend as you, but a slightly different version of it. And for some reason they think that the one they heard must be the correct one. They have NO reason to think this, because both versions are ridiculous and silly and untrue. But that other variant is theirs and so they become Team Venezuelan Pet in this stupid argument. And you all fight late into the night, your positions not based on logic, but on how you first got introduced to the story.
It’s like baby ducks seeing their mother or something. (I will also point out that most people have the same religion as their parents. Just sayin’.)
This phenomenon is part of a larger phenomenon called egocentrism. Not egotism, which is thinking that you are the best, but egocentrism, the assumption that your personal experiences are central and somehow universal.
But here’s the irony in applying this egocentric logic to the reading of books: The modern novel was invented as a way of being inside someone else’s life.
Think about it. Every word of Hunger Games and Uglies was carefully chosen to create the experience of being in Katinss’ or Tally’s head. This is why neither book has the line, “Gentle reader, unlike the people of your time, no one in this future world knows what an iPad is.” Because that would put you back in your life and ruin the whole point of modern narrative.
I keep saying “modern” because it wasn’t always this way. When the novel was a younger form, lots of them started with some sort of leisurely preamble, like, “This strange tale you are about to read was discovered in an old sea chest blah blah blah.” But in novels these days, the first sentences usually go BOOM THESE ARE SOMEONE ELSE’S THOUGHTS—DEAL WITH IT. Like, “When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.”
It’s the opposite of egocentrism, letting yourself become another person for a few hours. Especially when that person lives in a radically different reality, like a post-scarcity utopia or a post-apocalyptic wasteland. This departure from self is essential to reading novels, and it’s one of the ways that reading makes us better people. (It’s key to writing as well, which is why I gave this advice three years ago.)
Of course, there’s also a positive side of making our egos central to the reading process: When we read new books, we use the knowledge gained from all the other books we’ve read. We supplement the story of a novel with the story of our own reading history. This is a major reason why people can react to the same novel differently, like this:
New Reader: “I had no idea that Romantic Lead 1 and Romantic Lead 2 were going to get together. They HATED each other at first!”
Slightly More Experienced Reader: “That book was stupid. I knew from the first chapter that Romantic Lead 1 and Romantic Lead 2 were going to get together!”
Experienced Reader: “It’s cool what the author did with Romantic Lead 1 and Romantic Lead 2 in that scene, because that will make it more ironic when they get together later.”
This is in fact the major way we can tell how sophisticated a reader is, by how they relate the text in question to all the other things they’ve read.
But I’ll leave all the subtler points of readerly ego in your capable hands. I’m curious how your experiences with other writers’ novels changed your view of mine, whichever order you read them in. Let me know in the comments.
Of course, here is where I reveal that this was all a leisurely preamble to my own news: My UK publisher has released new covers for the Uglies series, featuring a crass-tastic tagline that will solve all problems of priority forever and ever!
Yes, gentle reader. They went there.