Monday, November 9, 2009

What Readers Are Owed

A while back, Bill asked "What do we owe our readers?" I've been mulling that over in the days and weeks since, in and amongst going to conventions, playing video games (for work, honest!), and reading big stacks of comics.

I tried to think of the question from both sides, taking into account not only my expectations as a writer sitting down at the keyboard, but as a reader when picking up the work of another. And I think my answer can be summed up in one simple phrase. What do we owe our readers? "A good story."

That deserves a little unpacking. A good story, I think, is one that has an ending. And so writers owe their readers an ending. If you begin a story that can't be comfortably fit into one volume, fair enough, but writers should ask their readers to begin reading a story if they aren't ever going to provide the ending. Obviously, there are real-world complications that can get in the way, and some writers have the poor foresight to die before finishing their tales, but all things being equal I think that writers should finish what they start.

What else does "a good story" mean? Well, I think that varies a bit from reader to reader, but in general it means that there should be some point to what's going on, that stuff should go on, that there should be characters (hopefully interesting ones) in a setting doing stuff (or at least talking ab0ut doing stuff, or maybe just thinking about doing stuff). There should be some entertaining element to the story, on some level, and if the writer can manage to squeeze a little enlightenment in there, so much the better.

This "entertainment" and/or "enlightenment" business is something I've thought about a lot over the years, and which I may talk about again at some point. To cut to the chase, though, I've come to look at myself as an entertainer, primarily. Not every writer is the same, obviously, and there are those who put more value on enlightening their audience--teaching them something, or portraying some truth, however painful or difficult to hear--but as for me, I'm Sammy Davis, Jr. I'm a song-and-dance-man, and while I harbor ambitions of working in a bit of Truth in my fiction whenever possible, I know that if I have to choose only one or the other, I'm going with entertainment.

But my thoughts on the entertainment/enlightenment question aside, the fact is that I think that readers deserve a story that exists for a reason. That reason may be to entertain them for a short while, to thrill or amuse them. That reason may be to bring home some underlying truth about the human condition, or a glimpse into the lives of others that we wouldn't otherwise have gotten. But whether the story is pure entertainment or some kind of enlightenment tract, the important thing is that the story has to be for something. If a piece of writing neither entertains nor enlightens, then it might be stylistically accomplished, it might have all sorts of pretty bells and whistles, it might be a dandy-fine writing exercise, but it isn't a story. And readers are owed more than that.


  1. I'll have the poor taste to put a name on the example you gently danced around. The Wheel of Time series started as a great epic fantasy. Five or seven books in, it had devolved into a soap opera--by which I mean it was obvious that the overall story was no longer heading toward any sort of closure, but that the author either (to be charitable) preferred "living" passively in his constructed world to telling stories there, or (less charitably) just couln't shut down the money printing press he had created. I stopped buying the books at this point, though I have read the later ones via library in the mostly vain hopes of finding closure on a couple favorite characters.

    While J.K. Rowling is neither a world class fantasist nor prose stylist, I respect her for sticking to her original septology after it became obvious that she could have milked it for more.

  2. We created these monsters by supporting terrible projects, by accepting slipshod lazy work, by paying full retail for total crap. I never dove into those giant door-stop sized books, but I, God help me, am a Spenser fan.

    Robert Parker is way past his prime as a writer. I read his Spenser novels when I get them remaindered out and it is a frustrating experience. It is also a common experience. I recently ran into a guy who was reading the new one and the conversation went like this...

    I nodded, implying I knew something. "Is that the new Spenser novel?"

    "Yeah," he said. He eyed me and I eyed him right back.

    I could take him. "Is Susan Silverman in it?"

    He sighed. "Yeah."

    "Too bad." I turned on the charm and he grinned. The tension broken, we laughed. We shared a secret bond, we were men of honor, men of our word, men who spoke in choppy sentences, men who hoped those books would get good again.

    We were optimists in the face of a mountain of evidence to the contrary. We needed to stop subsidizing crap and calling it art.

  3. I am of two minds about the "You owe them an end to your story" when one is A) doing a serialized story, and B) not fully in control of your involvement with the story -- in the sense that you are writing, for example, a publisher who replaces you on a given series, before your story is completed. Or a publisher who editorially inflicts such egregious changes to your story, while it is in progress, that your only recourse is to quit doing it.

    Those are two examples. I could list many.

    What's your obligation then?

  4. You raise a fair point, Mr. Willingham. I think in those circumstances that the writer is prevented by circumstances beyond their control from fulfilling their end of the deal. The publisher is preventing the story from being completed, and *they* are the one who owes an apology to the reader. The slight-of-hand in my argument that covers such eventualities is the "all things being equal" bit, and in such cases, all things *wouldn't* be equal. If the publisher prevents the story from being completed, the writer is no more to blame than in those instances where the writer shuffles off this mortal coil with a story left unfinished.

  5. The interesting line for me is the one between enlightenment and entertainment, because it seems awfully fuzzy. For a lot of readers, learning something new -is- the entertainment, or so indistinguishable from it that they can't tell the difference. Take everything from the Aubrey and Maturin books to Robinson's Mars books or the history packed into your own fictions. I eat up that factual stuff.

    The hard part in my own work is figuring out when I've crossed the line from storyteller to essayist. Though I've pushed it. In some of my stories, I've stopped the action to have characters explain something Really Really Cool. But that only seems to work when the cool thing is true -- some scientific oddity or fact in the real world, not some background of my made up world. My private rule is that whenever I do that kind of thing, the essay has to relate directly to the theme, and hopefully reveal character at the same time (ala Vonnegut). (I'll have to do a blog post about my rule: Always be doing two things at once...)

  6. I don't really see it as an either/or deal, Daryl, but more a spectrum, with Pure Entertainment on one pole and Pure Enlightenment (or maybe Pure Education?) on the other. The examples you cite would fall squarely in the middle, educating at the same time that they entertain (or entertaining *through* educating, or vice versa, or what-have-you).

    It might be possible to map your "story" and "essay" onto my "entertainment" and "enlightenment," come to that, since something that's Pure Education/Enlightenment would probably read closer to an essay, at that.

    Or maybe I'm just talking out of my hat...

  7. My hit on entertainment/enlightenment polarity is that the "enlightenment" fails as soon as the entertainment fails. If you want to enlighten, you *have to* also entertain--otherwise no one will make it through your story.

    I think it's possible to entertain without enlightening. But it's not possible to enlighten without entertaining--when writing stories, of course.

    So I'll just say right out:

    Entertainment+Enlightment > Entertainment

    (all other things being equal)

    That's not to say that top-class entertainment doesn't have a legitimate place at the top of the literary pyramid. I think it does. Anything done superbly is golden.