Well, I think the last post and the comments that followed were a perfect example to illustrate what I was talking about. We had over 100 comments (many were deleted due to their inflammatory nature) presenting many diverse opinions. Some said they'd never read my books but based on that post were going to now. At least one former fan said he/she was a fan no more based on the same thing. Some said they loved the post, some said it was boring and pointless. Some agreed vehemently, others disagreed just as vehemently. And everyone was responding to the exact same words. That's the power of personal interpretation.
And on to part 2, which many of you vigilante readers have guessed, is about the author's responsibility. Hopefully glimpsing my side of the equation will edify and enrich your own reading experience.I'm going to lay out my own opinion. Feel free to agree or disagree, but I ask you do so respectfully and without attacking me, other commenters, or any other party. If you have loads to say, it might work best to post it on your own blog and put a briefer comment here with a link to your blog. And please remember, no spoilers, though I don't know why that would come up in this topic.
So, does an author have a responsibility to her fans?
First off, in my opinion, a writer/reader relationship cannot and should not be subject to the same kinds of rules in a business relationship. In business, you are always thinking about the client, trying to figure out what the market wants and needs, working to keep the customer happy. This is smart business. But in any creative art, trying to follow that model would not only be quixotic but dishonest. Does anyone really want art that is created purely to please the masses? I think about Dark Knight, a movie hugely popular with both fans and critics. That was made from a unique vision. It was written and directed by an artist and went against many movie conventions of that genre. It worked not because it was designed to please the masses, following previous conventions, but because it followed the writer/director’s unique vision. We've all seen movies that are make with a board room mentality, and they stink. In creative arts, we don’t want to be pandered to by someone trying desperately to please us in order to get our money.
I think I have talked about this before, but there is no way that I can think about fans when I write. I don't write for my fans. I would be absolutely terrified of putting down a single word if I tried to think about what my fans wanted or what I owe them as an author. I cannot write to anyone outside myself--if I tried, it would be a horrible story, flat and lifeless. I write to myself. That's the only person I'm trying to please. And if that sounds like a cop-out, please understand that I am my own toughest critic. No one could be harder on me, my writing style, my storytelling ability, my ideas, anything, than I am on myself. I am ruthless (often painfully so--ask my husband). And I have a tough editor and others who read for me. I take their feedback extremely seriously and I rewrite myself to death. It's the only insurance I have against the inevitable criticism that follows any book publication.
Every professional novelist I know feels the same way--we have to write to ourselves and shut off the outside voices. If any writer claims to write to her fans first, I would be first, skeptical, and second, wary. We've probably all read books that aren't written to the author's internal reader, and they have that board room feel, more like an advertisement than true story. Books like that just don't work.
Now that doesn't mean I don't hope that I please my fans. I do. Desperately. Embarrassingly so, perhaps. And if I was really sure what my fans wanted out of a story, even if it wasn't what I wanted, I'd be tempted to write it to them. I've learned, however, that you can never know. As a writer, you have to trust yourself. That is so hard to do, but an absolute necessity. On example: when I wrote Princess Academy, I was pretty sure no one would like it, especially the ending. But I worked very hard to turn off those fears and the desire to second guess what readers want, and I wrote it to my internal reader. I remember doing book signings when it first came out and trying to talk people out of buying it, suggesting they read Goose Girl instead. Now, as I mentioned last post, Princess Academy has turned out to be my most popularly successful, as well as critically lauded, book. If I'd tried to write to the fans, or to what I thought the fans wanted, that book would have fallen flat on its face and disappeared. And it was also possible that the story that pleased my internal reader wouldn't please anyone else. But that was the risk I had to take.
I owe it to myself to write the very best story possible. If I mess up, it's my name on the book, not my fans'. I'm the one who has to live with my mistakes and regret them every day and cringe at the thought of people reading them. It will be my humiliation.
Besides the humiliation factor, there is profound motivation for an author to always do her best. Say I publish a book that I rush through, that I don't feel good about but I think, well, I'm feeling lazy this year, it's good enough. Ack! (Really, even the thought of that makes sensations of cold run down my legs.) Then my fans will be disappointed and won't buy any more of my books. If I have a hope in maintaining a career, I need to keep doing my best, never taking it for granted, working just as hard on each book, and trying to live as best I can, being a genuine person, opening myself up to people and to new ideas, reading good books, and in every way nurturing my internal reader so I can keep telling good stories. Other professional novelists I know feel the same way.
I know it's a risk reading a book. You're being asked to trust an author in order to fall into a story. In the hands of a good writer, that can be an amazing experience. In the hands of a lousy writer, that can feel violating. (And by "good" I mean "good for your own internal reader" and "bad" I mean "bad for your own internal reader". There is no way I could brand any book or writer as good or bad in any absolute terms.) But happily in our world we have libraries, and the reader can sample for free most any book without having to pay for it. No one is obligated to buy in order to read. That alone, I think, hugely affects the writer/reader dynamic. (FYI--if your library doesn’t have a book you want to read, you can request that they order it.)
In the reading relationship, the reader has as much power as the writer, I believe. You choose the stories you want to read, you choose how quickly you read, when you read, if you keep reading, if you reread. You visualize the characters, the story, the sounds and smells and feelings. You take lifeless words and bring them to life. You're like the director of the movie, taking the raw words of a script and blowing them up into full color on the screen. To a large extent, a movie viewer is merely a witness to the story, but a reader is a participant in the story. This is what makes reading such a profoundly intimate experience, so unique reader-to-reader, and also so powerful.
Now I can only speak for myself, but I can tell you I never publish a book that hasn't gone through the ringer until it absolutely pleases my internal reader. That's the only guarantee I can give you--that I am happy with this book. I have no idea if you will be. When a reader doesn't like a book from an author whose previous books they adored, often speculation ensues: well, she must have cut corners, she must have been lazy, she worked hard on those other books but this one she let flop. I think these speculations are only natural, but they are also fundamentally flawed. If the author says this too is a book born from her internal reader and the best one she could create, then I think it wise to accept that. She's done her part, she's done her best. And the readers don't have to like it or ever buy another book of hers again. But in my opinion, that relationship has been fulfilled. It's very sad for both parties when the fan is dissatisfied, but that's how it works in the creative arts. (More on speculation next post in part 3…)
As writers, we take frightening risks in writing something people might despise, but we put it out there and hope for the best. Readers too take risks whenever we turn ourselves over to an artist's vision. Sometimes we’re disappointed, but in my opinion, it's worth the risk.
So, I write to my internal reader--you read to see if my internal reader and your internal reader are kindred spirits. If they're not, we go our separate ways. If they are, then what connection, what serendipity, what joy! We get to tell a story together.