Thursday, March 23, 2006

Do readers matter?

I'm busy writing my new novel. I've already decided in advance that I'll publish it myself, on a blog, just as I have done with A Half Life of One. This decision has some interesting consequences.

For the first time in my life I feel as if I'm writing something without anyone looking over my shoulder. I'm not worried about who is eventually going to look at my finished manuscript. Not agents, nor publishers, nor friends. Not even casual readers. I'm writing the book simply for me. Once I've finished writing and editing - a lot of editing to satisfy my own internal reader - I'll simply post up the book and forget about it.

And yet, as I've discovered with Half Life, that isn't the end of the process. People do in fact read what you've written. Whether they comment or not on what they've read doesn't matter. Thanks to the magic of the site meter you can actually see how much time people have spent perusing your masterpiece. Sometimes it's hours, spread over several visits.

So, people of their own volition put time and effort into reading what you have written. Which makes me shift a little uncomfortably in my seat. By effectively self-publishing my novel I think I may have unwittingly entered into a contract with my readers. A contract for the exchange of energy, the flow of ideas and honest emotions.

But a contract implies rules and responsibilities on both sides. And the reason I'm squirming a little at the thought is because I fear I've short-changed my readers with the ending of the book. Although the ending is good enough for me, I know from the feedback I've had that it is not good enough for them. Not all of them anyway.

Does that matter? Do I have a responsibility not to short-change my readers in any way? Am I, in fact, obliged to put things right?

I'm not at all sure what to do here. I just can't decide whether a writer has any obligations towards his/her readers or not.

You're a reader, what do you think?

10 comments:

  1. Just an opinion here, but it seems to me the writer's responsibility begins and ends with writing the best piece he can possibly write. Once that point is reached (if it ever really can be) the responsibility shifts to the readers--to engage with the piece honestly, and to perceive accurately what it is that's in front of them. It isn't their responsibility to judge it, though they have that privelege, and whether they "like" it or not isn't, or shouldn't be, the writer's concern. The writer simply does his best.

    Joyce slaved over "Finnegan's Wake" for 17 years and when it finally came out people hated it. Naturally they hated it: it's endlessly challenging and will defeat 97% of the people who open it. That doesn't mean it isn't a singular masterpiece--a wild, naked tear through the luxuriant jungles of human language and psychology. And it wouldn't exist if he'd listened to his furrowed-brow critics.

    People love "The Da Vinci Code." And "Valley of the Dolls." Enough said.

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  2. Sir, I think that question begs a question. What is the intended purpose of your writing? What outcome are you seeking? Do you intend to become a published author? Published authors have a responsiblity to their readers IMO. Their readers are the ones who will buy the book, tell their friends, etc. If you are just self-publishing for your own enjoyment, then I don't think the author has any such responsiblity. So where do you fit in sir? Somewhere in between both places. Is that possible?

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  4. jta & Storyblook

    Thanks for your comments, you help me to get things clear in my own mind. I'm going to write this book just the very best I can without reference to anyone else. I've got a story to tell which needs telling, which must be told.

    Of course, I'd like as many people as possible to read it. Which at the moment really means traditional publishing. I'll explore that route, certainly, but that's a secondary outcome.

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  5. I'd say the writer has an obligation to write something the reader finds interesting. As that's in the eye of the beholder, I agree with jta - the writer should write as clearly as (s)he can. I've said somewhere else that words were invented to transmit ideas from one human mind to another, so writing something is only half the process. It's not complete until someone else reads the words and interprets them into an idea.

    If spammers annoy you, you could try turning on the word verification function in Blogger - at least that stops the robots. You can also delete comments, I think.

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  6. Carla, you are certainly right about the process of communication--it's the center and essence of writing, and it does require both sides to meet on the page to fulfill their duties. I think that's what Story was saying, too. But that goes to doing one's best. When a writer sits down to work, s/he has an all but unlimited number of ways to express the matters at hand, and an unknowable range of readers s/he must engage with; it's a formidable problem. No text can reach everyone. Any choices (subject, diction, voice, complexity) will serve some readers and exclude others. It's dizzyingly complex, once you start to pick it apart. It seems to me the writer, and the work, is best served by being true to the demands of the material, and letting the reader's chips fall where they may. Some won't "like" some things; they may stop reading, and tell their friends the book was no good. Very well. That risk the writer must accept, but s/he can minimize it by bringing all her skill to bear to include as wide a range of readers as the material allows. But I think that's all she can do. Otherwise we're truly at sea.

    By the way, your book is simply smashing. I'm on pins and needles waiting for chapters...

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  7. Hi Carla

    I don't mind spammers. I quite like them in fact. We're all selling something after all.

    I owe them something too. When I started they were my only visitors. I never know when I might need them again.

    I was only joshing with Tom when I told him to fuck off.

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  8. jta, you've made my day! Thank you so much. I am copy editing and proof reading and should be through by this time next week - perhaps I'll post the rest on the Feast of Fools? (feels sort of appropriate).
    Agreed that the writer can only control half the process, capturing the idea in words as precisely as possible. Every reader probably interprets the words differently, according to their own interests/knowledge/experience/mood. There used to be a reading club at work and it always astonishes me how different people can read the same book and take away completely different interpretations of it.

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