Someone once said that the writer-reader contract is more intimate than marriage: one is willing, even eager, to take into their head someone else’s thoughts. How much more intimate can you get?
Is contract another word for trust? That appears to be the case when readers will buy, unseen, the next book in a series, or by a given author, whereas they will circle around a new book by an unknown, reluctant to pay down money, even a small amount that they would think nothing of spending on a cappuccino. But of course, with the cappuccino, they know ahead of time exactly what they are getting. As is true with the series or the author.
How to define the contract, if one won’t accept the word ‘trust’?
Well, that’s tougher, partly because not only does every writer come to each project with different ideas, expectations, wants, intentions, and motivations, but readers come to books with their own experience, expectations, etc. If you walk into a waiting room and discover three sisters each sewing identical pieces of cloth, you might, if asking what they are doing, hear three answers: sewing a shirt, creating textile art, and earning a living.
Some will say that the reader contract can be defined as a story that rings true. Um, yeah. Truth. Courtrooms daily are proving that ‘truth’ can be as tough to define as ‘good taste.’ This historical novel that your neighbor raves about you are appalled to find riddled with errors. The book your kid thinks is so realistic rings totally false to you—in your experience, people don’t act like that, except maybe on stage.
Then there is the old realism debate—as if gritty detail somehow carries more gravitas.
Maybe it’s easier to talk about what breaks the contract for the reader—she can’t believe in the lie, or as my professors used to say, is unwilling to suspend disbelief for the extent of the novel. (Though I find, in later life, that that “disbelief” is not so black-and-white as we were told during my college days; there are books, places, characters, that for most purposes are more real to passionate readers than actual living peeps. But I digress.)
I’ve found over the years that the first example offered in talking about what breaks the contract are unpleasant experiences the reader was not seeking, or was not ready for. “I did NOT want to read that!” Book, meet wall.
Speaking for only me, I find that a comedic tone appears to promise a safety net, by which I mean implicit is the promise of no long scenes of torture, murder of innocents and the helpless, dreary or tragic situations or endings. What is sometimes termed black humor delivers these things, can even be about these very things. I suspect this is why some readers don’t find black humor funny. “Kafka is screamingly funny!” “Sez you–I think he’s boring and dreary.” For some readers, suffering is funny, not because they are cruel people, but they can gain a distance from the pain by laughing at it, they can even get distance from grieving. Others are not going to find the laugh mechanism triggered by certain subjects no matter what.
The contract for the experienced reader is going to be different from that of a new reader. The new reader is unfamiliar with tropes—everything is new and exciting. So a work that plays around with old tropes might read like a mess, because there is no recognition of the patterns the writer is examining.
Character death and contract-breaking sparks some of the sharpest divides in discussions, I’ve discovered. A while back, someone posted in their blog, Dear Authors, if a character dies, let them stay dead. Thank you. That was right after someone else stated that Joss Whedon had forever lost their trust after [random pointless character death], as they came to fiction to avoid that aspect of Real Life.
If you are a writer, and your audience has expectations of you, do you deliberately set out to break them, or fulfill them? Readers might say they crave something new, but if you look at the best seller lists, how many times have you seen a familiar storyline? Some writers begin to feel an adversarial relationship with readers—especially after reading a lot of reviews that all seem to contradict.
Finally, the real contract is with the writer herself, though I think if helps the writer to become aware of the terms of that contract if she was first a reader.