Mark Terry

Monday, February 07, 2011

Contract With The Reader

January 7, 2011
What do you owe readers? Anything?

The late Ed McBain on his website had a little essay that I won't put here fully, but he called NATURE OF THE BEAST and I pretty much agree with all of it.

I like to believe I've made a contract with the reader.

The contract is a simple one.

I know all the rules of mystery writing, and I promise
that I will observe them so long as they provide a novel
that will keep you fascinated, intrigued, and entertained.
If they get in the way of that basic need, I'll either bend
the rules or break them, but I will never cheat the
reader. Never.

He goes on and I hope you read it. There are many things in it that I agree with. Almost nothing I disagree with. Some that don't necessarily apply to me, at least not always.

Ed (Evan) also gave a nod to the fact that other writers and other readers may be looking for a different experience: "These are realistic novels, so if you are looking for Agatha Christie, you're not only in the wrong pew, you're in the wrong church."

I do feel that when I'm asking readers to cough up their hard-earned cash for one of my books--and perhaps as importantly, their finite time--that they deserve to get what they're looking for. That doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to kowtow to every whim. I hope it means that if they pay $25.95 for a book (or even $2.99) that they come away satisfied that they got their money's worth. That is, perhaps, a different kind of contract, but one I take seriously.

A couple years ago SF/F writer Justine Larbalestier wrote a bog post about this question and says, "No writers owes their readership anything. NOT A SINGLE THING. They have to write the book they have to write."

Well, yes, I suppose, although they need to accept then that readers may think it's a piece of shit and say so publicly and with their credit cards. Larbalestier goes on to then point out several TV creators who screwed up their shows, so she notes that she may feel differently as a reader than she does as a writer. (And Larbalestier's whole post seems to have to do with fan disappointment with Stephenie Meyer's BREAKING DAWN, a series I have not read).

There are some wonderful and thought-provoking comments in Larbalestier's blog post, but I'll note a couple here that jumped out at me:

#15. Beth: "The writer doesn't 'owe' the reader anything, but good writing will know the balance between fulfilling the reader's wishes and maintaining a good story. I think it was Kurt Vonnegut who said 'Give them what they want' and gave the example of how you know a romance will end up with boy getting the girl and how you shouldn't fail the reader..."

Well, I agree 100% with that. I think if you're going to ignore the desires and needs of the reader, what exactly is the point of publishing your work? If it's all about you, why bother with readers at all? Write the damn thing, leave it on your computer and be happy with the story you wrote.

#3. Laura Goodin: "My husband, a composer, and I, a writer, often debate this. He leans toward “the composer/writer must produce the work that they want to produce, and the listener’s/reader’s expectations do not enter into it.” I lean toward “The reader and I collaborate to make this work meaningful. If I jerk the reader around, that’s just power-tripping.”"

The composer in this instance seems completely uninterested in the market, the genre, etc. I think sometimes we get people that plow new ground and create their own market, but it's rare. I believe it was Hemingway that suggested there were two routes to success, to break out of the mold or to beat a dead man at his game, which I suppose means write a book similar to previous books only better.

I wasn't able to find this, but a few years ago I read an interview with Ken Follett. He was discussing how the critics are sort of hard on him, even though he's quite successful. He apparently is good friends with a literary writer who commented to him that he wrote for the critics and Follett wrote for the readers. To which Follett replied, "That's why I have so many of them."

Thoughts? Who do you write for?


Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

I can see that if you are writing a series, or are promoting your books as being rather alike, then readers will have expectations. I guess Mary and I write for a very small audience that wants both historical accuracy and a classic style clued mystery puzzle. If we asked readers to pay for one of these series books and gave them, say, a science fiction adventure or a romance, instead of a historical mysery that would be unfair.

On the other hand (and here I am speaking theoretically...not about myself but about someone very very skilled) a writer does get to choose what readers he or she wants to write for? The least imaginative who don't want to ever be surrpised? Or readers who would prefer to have their minds stretched a little, would prefer that their expectations sometimes turn out to wrong because that can be interesting?

To complicate things further, many people can be totally different sorts of readers depending on what they are reading. When I read a Travis McGee novel I expect a certain sort of satisfying solution to the problem at the end. But with some kinds of non-series books I prefer to see what the writers wants to do. Surprise me!

9:31 AM  
Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

Neil Gaiman once said something rather brilliant, but I can't remember the exact words. Something like: Give the readers what they want, not what they ask for. If you give them what they ask for, they'll hate it.

It's a heck of a line to walk, but I think that's where the fun is.

Also he said that if readers tell you something doesn't work, they're almost always right. If they tell you how to fix it, they're almost always wrong.

12:16 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I probably agree with Gaiman.

12:27 PM  
Blogger Linda Pendleton said...

I believe we owe readers credible and coherent fiction or nonfiction. And hopefully we entertain.

1:19 PM  
Blogger Jon VanZile said...

I once saw James Patterson speak and he said, "People ask me about getting published and here's what I always say. If you want, go ahead and write the book that's in your heart and never get published. When you're serious about getting published, figure out what people want to read and then write that."

I found a lot of things to like and rather intensely dislike about this piece of advice.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I love this discussion. And I think Gaiman's advice suits me well. I started out in chick lit, but I was definitely going against the grain a bit in that my characters had mobbed-up families, or even one character with breast cancer . . . I gave the readers (I hope) funny, poignant characters, but I wrote the book that I really believed in honestly. In one, I killed the main character because . . . well, she had cancer. I had readers write me in droves, saying they had sobbed, but it was their FAVORITE book, so I gave them an honest book, and a funny book, but I didn't necessarily give them the book they THOUGHT they were going to get at the end.

When I think of Freudian Slip, it was a completely wacky book with Albert Einstein in drag and all sorts of nutty things. But when readers picked it up, it was obvious from page 1 they were getting a book with a high quirk factor. But--big but--it was a love story. And they GOT what they had the RIGHT to expect as a buyer of a love story. If I went and blew that off in favor of some ambiguous ending, or in favor of suddenly going off in some artistic fashion in another direction, I would think they would have had a legitimate right to be disappointed.

Ignore the reader at the writer's own peril.

6:02 AM  

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