Readers and Writers: Obligation

Readers and Writers: A Delicate Balance

This is part of a multi-part series regarding some potential pitfalls and difficulties on both sides of the reader/writer relationship. It's important to note that different writers (and readers) will have different comfort levels. It has been a surprise for me how many authors suffer from serious social anxiety, it's always important to remember that you cannot own another person and while the writer does not have an excuse to treat another poorly, sometimes they may not, for their own mental well-being, be able to engage with you in the way you would prefer.
This series will focus mainly on things I've observed about writer/reader interactions. It will in no way be a blanket statement of how it is appropriate for all readers to interact with all writers, or vice versa.
Some subjects we'll be covering:

Part One: Do writers have an obligation to readers?

With readers essentially being customers to writers, producing a "product" readers enjoy, there are some times when it starts to feel that we owe readers something. 
  • We owe them a timely release of our next book. I think the whole "will George R. R. Martin die before he writes the next Game of Thrones" controversy is the most well known version of this.
  • We owe them a professional product. 
  • They feel a sense of betrayal when we kill off a beloved character or take the series in a direction they don't like. 

All of those could merit a discussion about whether or not there is an "obligation" or just a perceived one ... I'll break them down a little here, though.

Deadlines and the Indie Author

The Martin example gets paraded a bit because it's blatantly bad manners to speculate on another person's mortality especially in regards to how that will adversely effect you. It's on the taste level of complaining that you have to cancel your trip to Vegas because Grandma kicked the bucket at a bad time. 
However, there is a more reasonable sense of disappointment when you read on an author's site that their new book will be out August of this year ... and then August rolls around and no book. Technically the author did break a promise here.
However, it is a little different from a situation with a plumber or a contractor, someone you hired for a specific job. The writer isn't your employee. A writer being behind schedule would be more like a movie release being delayed or if your favorite restaurant closed down for a few days for some reason.
Yes, those things may inconvenience you and may cause you to take your business elsewhere, but it isn't as if they restaurant failed you personally for not serving you lunch that day.

A Professional Product?

As for a professional product: my problem with this, no one knows exactly what they mean. I mean we all might be able to identify a book with a microsoft paint cover, lots of typos, and formatting that runs together ... but if you find a book that lacks these basic things just don't buy it. You don't owe the writer your money, and it is pretty easy to prevent accidentally buying an awful book. Amazon makes the look inside available on most books. Let the buyer beware, but again, I don't think the author owes you anything (though if the author doesn't at least attempt to make her/his work passably professional, then the author really shouldn't expect to make it their "profession." ... there actually are some hobby writers out there who are just publishing for the fun of it. I know, crazy, but true.).

Readers feeling Betrayed

The last one is where it gets the most problematic, for me, anyway. You want an emotional reaction from your readers, but anger is not usually desirable ... however, not all stories are going to end in a happy and upbeat way. A lot of very famous literature ends with a main character dying. It's often the only appropriate end. I'm sure there are plenty of posts out there about how to handle something like character death ... but even a well-handled one will often get an adverse reaction.
So on one hand, you can't help that.
Where it becomes a problem is when readers attempt to coax and/or bully writers into writing something a particular way.
"If you kill this character off, I'll never buy another of your books again" or things like that. I have definitely seen this. With a big named author who gets thousands of messages tweeted at them all the time, it becomes noise after a bit, I'm sure. They can't listen to every fan. It's simply impossible.
However, with an indie writer, there might be a lot more contact between a writer and their core fans.
Sometimes you can even find yourself writing for a particular reader. While it is good to have a target audience, making one particular readers (or group of readers) the representation of that audience can cause one to lose their own "voice."
I sometimes feel this way about even big productions. I swear, for instance, that some BBC writers (you know who they are) skim tumblr and use what they find to craft their scripts.
You also start falling to the in jokes and "fan service" that may get a reaction in the short run but don't necessarily make for an enduring story (You know what would be cool? Let's have the Doctor ride in ... on a tank ... playing an electric guitar ... the fans will love that ... Sorry, sorry, rant over ...).
There are already enough confusing voices clamoring about what makes a proper story or proper writing. Sometimes you just have to be prepared not to please everyone.
I see this with writers and reviews all the time (They're doubling up on character development because a reviewer didn't think it was deep enough. They're shortening the backstory because a reviewer thought it was too much), and while I don't think writers should turn a blind eye to potential flaws in their own work, the basic fact that you will never please everyone means you have to learn to shrug off about 90% of what flies at you from reviews.
Sometimes it's good to look at big name books and remind yourself that even they have bad reviews.
And two people can read the same book or watch the same movie and see totally different things.
After The Force Awakens I got into it with a friend of a friend online who said there was no character development in that movie because "we don't know anything about them."
So I broke down, detail per detail everything in Finn and Rey's introduction scene and pointed out the subtext of different visuals and actions to show how much nonsense I thought this was.
But in fairness, what the person said wasn't exactly wrong. Episode VII painted characters through images and implications. Very little in those first few scenes was plainly stated. You had to look for it. You might argue that's a little too subtle for something with a pace that fast and it would've been better served to slow down the start of the movie and add in a couple of scenes that took their time with it, but writing the character introductions in that way was a legitimate style choice. Won't please everyone, but it's hard to argue it was wrong. Is there really a wrong in art?


  1. "Where it becomes a problem is when readers attempt to coax and/or bully writers into writing something a particular way."
    I immediately thought of the movie MISERY when I read this. *shivers*
    I think we are obligated to deliver a professional product when we say we will. Of course we want the readers to LOVE it, but story preference is subjective. I always hope there will be enough to enjoy in my stories that people will keep coming back. Even if they aren't their preferred genre or don't go exactly as they think they should.

    1. I think when you get emotionally involved with something you start to take ownership of it. So on one hand, it takes a good writer to make readers feel that way. On the other, it is hard to be a good writer if you start following the whims of readers rather than artistic instinct.


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