No one ever told me that some writers don't consider the reader.

*Warning, rant ahead*

As I wander and blurk around the blogosphere, I've seen many places where people complain that publishing houses are more interested in money than good writing, that most books out today are crap and that popularity is more important than quality.

Now, to a certain extent I can understand this frustration. Many of us went to college where we dissected the masterpieces of literature, discussing theme and symbolism. Then as writers we serve a long apprenticeship in which we learn the rules for writing, and querying and plotting, etc. Rules like "show, don't tell," and "cut back on the adverbs." We research and practice and collect rejections and then we go to the bookstore and see the latest bestseller, rife with adverbs and thematically as deep as a mud puddle. And we stand there and think:

"This is terrible. Why is it that this person has so much success? More importantly, if this is the standard, why can't I sell my work?

These are painful questions for any writer, especially a new one. And for a lot of people, the tendency at this point is to blame the publishing industry for just caring about money, and blame the readers for having no taste.

This was brought home to me when I stumbled across an old blog post by the ever-helpful Nathan Bransford, in which he asked people to weigh in on this question:

"You go down to the crossroads and make a pact to have your novel and future novels published. You are given a conditional choice. Either you can receive the highest literary acclaim for your work, but a guarantee that you will never earn enough to give up your day job. Or you can always be considered a terrible hack, but make bucketloads of cash. Which do you choose?"

Here were my observations. (There were many good points made in this discussion, but these are just the ones that stuck out to me):

~Most people went for the money, but there were many passionate posts about acclaim.

~Several people made comments to the effect that they wouldn't have any self respect if they were hacks.

~Many of the people who voted for literary acclaim made statements to the effect that they would never write "just for the money".

~Being considered a hack was often equated with not writing the best stuff that they could write, even by people who wanted the money. In fact, one anonymous person (who voted for acclaim) said. "I hate it when things that aren't worth crap are popular, it really frustrates me".


Hmmm.... What ran through my mind, and as some posters pointed out, was that to be making lots of money doing this, you have to have a lot of readers. What you write has to resonate with many, many people in order to bring in that kind of money. And yet the majority of people in this discussion didn't even mentioned the readers.

Writers do this a lot. We talk about writing for ourselves, writing for the market, writing "commercial fiction, writing "literary fiction", writing for money, writing for editors, writing for critics, etc. We rarely talk about the readers, except in broad financial terms, as if readers were a kind of stock market that we play.

And when we do talk about them, the idea keeps popping up that the average American reader is a poor judge of books, and therefore can be dismissed or ignored because they don't know what's good anyway.

I find this very odd.


Mainly because this is hugely different from the way that many long-time writers view readers. If you read Stephan King's On Writing, or Terry Brook's Sometimes the Magic Works, both those men are hugely respectful of the reader. Without ever saying you should pander to people (It's quite funny to hear Stephan King's take on his hate mail), they make it very clear that they consider the reader in what they write.

For example, Stephan King says repeatedly that while you should write the first draft with the door closed, (for yourself), you should write the second with the door open. This means letting the world in, revising with the reader in mind. He also refers the the connection between the writer and the reader as a powerful form of telepathy, and because of that writing is not something to be taken lightly.

Terry Brooks has a set of principles for good writing and one of them is DON'T BORE THE READER. He puts it like this:

"You can get away with breaking all of the other rules, at least once in a while, but you can't get away with breaking this one.... (Cliches and poor writing) are always a clear indication that the writer doesn't have enough respect for the reader. Readers may not be savvy enough to figure out what it is about a book that doesn't work, but they are plenty sharp enough to know when they are being dissed."

It makes me wonder, are we newer writers losing our respect for the reader? With all our struggling and agonizing and trying to get this publisher or that agent, have we lost the sense of connection between the storyteller and the listener?

What do you think?

5 comments:

  1. You know, I think new writers, more than the experienced, jaded veterans with files full of rejections, are actually MORE apt consider the reader. They generally write because they have a story to tell; because they love to write; because they love books. They're still in the 'romance' phase of the relationship.

    It's when we start receiving critique and rejection responses that the desire to simply 'tell the story' is interrupted by conscious concerns to follow the rules, stay in the correct voice and steer clear of the adverbial dragons. It's kind of like when an actor becomes aware of the audience and falls out of character, the writer becomes self-concious and falls out of the story-telling role.

    I'm sure that's why King says the first draft should be a closed door--so you don't feel tied to following the rules. You can split your infinitives, dangle your prepositions and pick your nose. Nobody will see it. And if we aren't being self-concious about our writing, we're better able to tell the story...our connection to the reader is fully engaged.

    Stephanie Meyer is a classic example. The writing in the Twilight series breaks so many 'writing' rules. But the story is completely engrossing. Did she sell out? Or did she just tell a really great story?

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  2. Agreed. You can break SO many literary rules if you simply spin an AWESOME story... it's like a free pass, for God's sake. I don't agree, and would hope published authors would "respect" the reader more and aim a bit higher, but the proof's all around us!

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  3. I think we might get sidetracked every now and then, but when you sit at that computer and put hand to keyboard, unless you're only writing a personal journal, there's some sort of contract between you and the reader, on some level. If we didn't care much about the reader, I don't think we'd write.

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  4. In the end, what sells is what connects with the reader...for one reason or another. What we might consider god-awful we should still dissect and analyze and see why it hit the bestseller list. It can't be totally without merit.
    Nice post! I should read the Terry Brooks book!

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  5. Amy- Good point, I hadn't thought about the honeymoon period of new writers. Perhaps the best writers are the ones who manage to hang on to that connection even through rejection and struggle.

    Gottawrite- Yes, I think we forget the importance of the story. Writing rules and devices are fun, but they aren't story. (I also agree that you shouldn't get lazy just because you have a good story.)

    Joanne- That's good to hear. I know many writers who are truly passionate about their readers, it just struck me how little we talk about them amongst ourselves.

    PJ. Exactly. That was one of the things I was thinking, that we shouldn't discount the opinions of readers just because we don't agree with them. Instead we can use those best-sellers to make OUR stuff better.

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