|My recent article on finding partners got me thinking about a special partnership: The one between a writer and his or her readers, listeners, viewers etc. I was going to say “audience” but that’s too passive. Readers, listeners and viewers participate actively in the dialogue, and probably work as hard internalizing, interpreting, and reacting to what they see and hear as the writer did crafting it.
Designer-author Edwin Schlossberg says that the writer needs to envision and integrate the reader, listener or viewer into the composition process, and that “The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think.” That suggests that, as with any partnership, there is an implicit contract between writers and readers. What are the terms of that contract?
I think the first term of the contract is truthfulness and honesty. Writers owe a duty of care to their readers to ensure that what they say is true. A writer who lies or distorts the truth destroys his credibility and trust, and when that happens he’s toast. This even applies to fiction, where the writer needs to ensure his plot is plausible and his characters are believable, consistent, and real. Movies like Independence Day (virus stops alien invasion), Armageddon (nuke stops asteroid from hitting Earth) and The Core (scientists re-start the spinning of the Earth from inside) all introduce plot twists that are incredible, absurd, and intellectually insulting. I walked in on my kids while they were watching Independence Day, and saw the scene where the computer repeatedly flashes “virus uploading” while the previously omnipotent and brilliant aliens stand by idly as their ships started exploding. I thought it was a parody and I was rolling on the floor laughing. The kids were not amused. Ghastly, atrocious, dishonest writing.
The second term of the contract is clarity. Writers have a responsibility to be as clear as possible. Obfuscation, deliberate complication, pedantry, obscurity or fuzziness is an abrogation of that responsibility, and mean and unfair to readers.
The third term of the contract is utility. Writings provide value in two main ways: By informing and educating the reader (intellectual value), and by entertaining, inspiring and “transporting” them (emotional value). Scroll to the bottom of my right sidebar to see some examples of utility and value readers and writers are looking for.
The fourth term of the contract is quality. Competent writing skill, imagination, research, effort, editing, inspiration, practice, craftsmanship all make for a quality product. When they’re missing, it’s obvious.
What does the reader owe the writer in return? If asked (as in the comments thread of blogs), the reader should be truthful and honest about their assessment of the work, ideally in a tactful way (when you’re used to a rash of comments on each post, or best-seller status for each book, a sudden silence or sales flop is as telling as a critical review, and kinder). A few caveats: As the book Into the Buzzsaw shows, sometimes a book’s failure can be the result of deliberate corporatist pressure or publisher malfeasance, rather than a true reflection of the book’s value to readers. Popularity of movies depends more on advertising hype and “what else is on this weekend” than the attributes above, and a better measure is imdb ratings several years after release. And in most cases book sales are more a reflection of what readers thought of the writer’s last book than the current one. But in most cases sales, blog hits and other quantitative measures of appreciation don’t lie — more Wisdom of Crowds.
If the work is commercially published, the reader also owes it to the writer to pay for it, instead of getting it from elsewhere for free. Beyond that, the reader owes the writer nothing — it’s up to the writer to “create the context in which people can think” (or feel). As in any enterprise, you ignore the needs of the customer at your peril. For that reason I’m always astonished at how few writers (both of books and hard-copy magazine articles) fail to provide websites or even e-mail addresses so that readers can tell writers what they thought, and what they’d like to read next, and so that they can create a sense of community with other readers around the writer’s work. How can you have a partnership if the communication is only one-way?
A partnership is a more intimate and familiar relationship than a supplier-customer relationship — more personal, equal, and collaborative. But in many ways the partnership between writer and readers is illusory: Yes, the writer creates that shared contextual space where readers can think and feel, and in some cases it seems like a collaboration — there is almost a sense of conspiratorial closeness. But the writer knows (or should know) that the world he or she is facilitating for readers is ultimately a creation of each individual reader for his or herself — and each ‘reading’ of the book’s message and story is probably unrecognizably different from the others. That’s what makes stories so powerful, so subversive, and so dangerous. And what makes writing such a challenging and ultimately solitary process.