Thursday, 22 October 2015

Writers and readers - are they getting too close for comfort? by Ali Bacon

Ali Bacon
Like most people I read the summary of Joanne Harris’ ‘writer’s manifesto’, (headlining in the press and social media on Monday) in summary form. Of course the whole thing (I found it here) is more wide-ranging than the headlines suggest, but the main point remains the same: the breaking-down of barriers between writer and reader has resulted in “a false sense of entitlement” on the part of readers to interfere in or even dictate the writing process.
Of course the experience of a first-time author is a different kettle of fish (like how I did that?) to that of an international best-seller, but it did make me wonder if our proximity to readers has changed the goalposts for writers, and think about what readers are actually entitled to. 

No complaints!
Looking at this from the ‘consumer rights’ perspective, I would say that a reader is entitled to a book or story that is complete (no pages missing!) and written by the person who claims authorship.
Is there anything else we ‘owe’ our readers? I don’t think so. Of course if we have built up an audience in one genre or sub-genre, we change the goal posts at our peril. The audience for Harry Potter did not in general warm to A Casual Vacancy (which I loved!) but hey, it’s still the prerogative of JK Rowling to write what she pleases, look for a new audience, or live off her earnings from the boy wizard.
Nathan Filer pleasing the punters...
Of course it gets more difficult if we want, as Harris requests, to make a living from what we write and I'm not sure it quite sits with her own claim to "never let anyone else decide what I should write, or how - not the market, my publishers, my agent, or even you, the readers". 
The work of a commercially successful (or even less successful) author has always  been moderated by agents, editors and publishing houses who think they know what readers want. (See Kath’s post yesterday on how demanding they can be) and even those working independently from the traditional publishing industry are going to have some kind of eye to the market if they intend to reach a mass audience. In this respect a book is a product which like any other will only succeed if the market likes it and most professional writers will know the tension between what they want to create and what readers might want or expect and have to decide to what extent they will compromise, even if its only in matters of title or cover design. Not that any of this encroaches on a writer’s freedom, but anyone looking to earn a living should be aware of their market even if they choose to ignore it and plough their own furrow as many in the writing game do. (Chris Hill, who write last week on Writers Unchained) is a good example of the do-as-you-please philosophy). 

... or lost in the crowd
But I do agree with JH that writing is not a democracy, and however much we might ramp up publicity by involving our readers, the creative choices (which might extend to making a character after a sponsor) are still ours to make, and anyone like Harris’ bible-bashing bowdlerisers who ask for text to be changed run the risk of breaching copyright as well as artistic autonomy. Personally I would ignore them!  We may live in a world where "the consumer increasingly calls the shots," but we can retreat from it any time we like and throw ourselves on the mercy of the book-loving public.

The new social media world does expect more visibility from authors - which for indie authors is a double-edged sword in terms of time and energy management, but we do it to reach our public. As an international best-seller Harris could probably downsize her media presence (much of which she enjoys) but if there’s a publisher driving her engagement calendar …? 
More convincing I think is her point about the cheapness of e-books and the devaluation of writing in a market where, apparently, ‘anyone can write a book’. 
In fact we know this is isn’t the case, but anyone who has written a book can publish it, and charge as little as they like. In this we may have been our worst enemies but even if I like a bargain as much as the next person, I’ll stay pay a publisher’s price for a book I really want to read, especially if it’s by an author I already know.  I think this aspect of the market will eventually shake down. Occasional freebies or specials will be legitimate marketing tools (I bagged Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch for 0.99 – high-five!) but the reader will make his own choices and if a free book doesn’t please, he won’t go to that author again.

Joanne Harris’ manifesto, however we might quibble over the details, is still a good thing. We can’t turn the clock back on the ‘publishing revolution’ and it’s only right that readers should be reminded of the kind of job we do and the difficulty of earning a living from it. If some of it is overstated or only applies to her own situation, it casts light on the world of the writer and I do hope it becomes part of the ‘national conversation’ it hopes to engender.

A Kettle of Fish by Ali Bacon
contemporary Scottish fiction
available as e-book or paperback



8 comments:

Mari Biella said...

It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? There’s no doubt that the traditional space between writers and readers has shrunk, largely due to the internet and social media, and in many ways that’s been a very good thing. I love hearing from readers (not that this happens very often in my case!), and I’m inclined to listen to whatever they have to say, whether I agree with them or not. Most, in my experience, don’t have any particular sense of entitlement, and are quite happy to either take or leave a book; they don’t expect books to meet each and every one of their perceived requirements, as if the author had sat down and ticked off various items on a list. Maybe there are a few out there…

To be honest, I’m not sure that an author really could allow readers to dictate what he or she writes. You can’t please everyone, and by producing a book that a certain group of readers loved, you’d almost certainly also be alienating another group. I notice that Harris mentioned the CleanReader app in her manifesto. Perhaps that’s less a case of readers dictating what a writer should write, and more about readers being enabled to read a book that they might otherwise avoid due to their dislike of, for example, profanity or sexual content. I’m not saying that such apps are a good thing, or to be encouraged, but I can also kind of see it from the reader’s point of view.

But then again, there’s another issue at stake: that fiction isn’t always comfortable or comforting, though it can be. Fiction can challenge, introduce new ways of looking at things, and encourage the reader to question preconceived ideas. Personally, I quite enjoy books like that, though a few of them have made me uncomfortable while I was reading them. However, I’m sure there are readers who read purely for entertainment and don’t wish to be challenged, and I also think that that is perfectly legitimate.

All in all, as you might have guessed, I find this issue complicated, and I don’t think there’s a straightforward answer.

Wendy Jones said...

This has been really interesting to read. I agree that the gap is shrinking and now readers feel that they know authors better. This can lead to saying things which would not have happened In the past. If a reader did not like a book the only recourse was to avoid that author in the future. Now, readers can often tell authors in person, through social media and in book reviews. We are living in a new world, bare or otherwise, and as authors we need to find strategies for dealing with this.

Jan Needle said...

Very interesting. Thanks.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Very interesting piece of analysis, Ali and like all of us, I'm in two minds.I saw this reblogged on the Passive Voice and (perhaps predictably) the US writers were much more 'robust' in their responses than anyone over here. I have some sympathy with her - but my heart sank at the thought of a manifesto - mainly because I thought it unnecessary. It can be faintly irritating when readers expect something from you that you're not prepared to give - I've been taken to task for bad language, for writing an unlikable character, for writing 'love stories' - and I'm nowhere near Harris's league as far as celebrity goes. I should be so lucky. But we can't have it both ways. A writer who is selling a lot of books, who is active on social and other media, is a writer who is in some sense a celebrity. For every 99 nice supportive readers there may be the odd one who is difficult. But she doesn't have to take any notice. I find myself asking - would an actor find it necessary to write a 'manifesto' about his or her relationship with a fanbase? I doubt it.

Debbie Bennett said...

I confess I rather like the interaction. I still get surprised when I get messages from readers and I enjoy their thoughts and ideas on where things might go in subsequent books. I've spent a lot of time on character development, and I was so pleased when a reader told me she thought x and y might happen in the next book as it meant I'd achieved my aim if she thought such a thing was even possible...

Susan Price said...

I love Joanne Harris' books, but I feel she's talking through her hat on this - basing my opinion on Ali's analysis, that is, which others judge to be a good one. I confess I haven't read the 'manifesto' and, after reading Ali's account, doubt if I will, because I don't understand why we supposed to need 'a declaration of aims.'

Has the distance between writers and readers narrowed? - I don't think so. Readers have always written to writers and popular writers - Dickens, for instance - have always toured, lectured, written for newspapers and magazines.

Readers have always tried to dictate what their favourite authors wrote - 'Don't kill Little Nell!' - and writers have always ignored them. Readers have frequently been glad, in the end, that the writer ignored them.

Readers have the choice they've always had - read stuff by a particular writer if they like it, or not read it if they don't. How has Social Media changed this? Do emails and FB somehow force writers to do as readers bid, when letter campaigns aimed at saving Little Nell didn't? - I just don't get it.

Lydia Bennet said...

Yes an interesting and thought-provoking post. Conan Doyle brought Holmes back after public clamour - however he'd killed him off in a way which made that easy to do, so he may have wanted that option. I've noticed more readers agonising about the odd comment by a reader or potential reader, and offering to change their books to suit, which is ludicrous imo. Joanne Harris made her name with a very commercial book combining chocolate, sex and France and good for her, but we all should write what we want to write and some people will like it and some won't, and that's ok.

AliB said...

Oh dear - had a busy coupe of days so apologies for not responding to your comments, everyone, but it looks like we are pretty much in agreement!
irect interaction with readers is usually welcomed. If you think about live performance, there is a buzz from the immediate reaction of an audience which is usually denied to the written word (although a fan letter was always an option).
I do know some authors are resentful of publiishers' expectations re publicity etc but I heard of one this week who has just decided to withdraw from all interviews, festivals etc - already a best-seller, of course - most of us know we need to get out there if we want to sell anything!