The Writer/Reader Contract





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 next in a series by an author one already trusts.

So what earns reader trust?

I know there is no single answer. 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. Sometimes, when I look at reviews on Goodreads under a title, I see such wildly different reactions that it appears they all read completely different books.

And yet equally wild popularity means that the trust is happening. How to define it?

(c) Harris Museum & Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Harris Museum & Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Even the simplest definitions can be dicey. I could walk into an empty room to find three robots sitting at sewing machines. If I ask what they are doing, I might get three answers: sewing a shirt, creating textile art, and earning a living.

All three can be true together, or singly—and for some people at least one will be a lie. “You call that art?” “That’s not a shirt.”

While thinking about this topic, I dug up some notes from a panel I attended—I’d begun diligently taking notes, then they started talking too fast, and I gave up. But at the start, I pretty much got down the keywords of what was said on the topic of Reader/Writer Contract–which I am expanding to approximate.

The moderator started out by saying that she didn’t want the panelists to talk about their own writing. “As purely a reader, I find you all begin to sound alike: you believe in your work, it’s art, it’s literature, it’s different from everything out there. Instead, I want you to talk as readers. What gets you to immerse in a book?”

Panelist One: “I trust a writer who gives me a story that rings true.”

more intent reading

Panelist Two: “That’s the short version of I was trying to put together, so let me say, that works for me.”

Panelist Three: “Not for me. Defining truth in literature is as slippery as defining good taste.”

Moderator: “Good taste, or good? I see two different directions here.”

Panelist One: “And both lead straight to hell.”

Three: “Instead of getting into aesthetics, let me talk about experience. My kid read Eragon over and over, talked about how great it was, his favorite book. I couldn’t get five pages in without gagging. Or wondering why the writer didn’t have a slew of plagiarism lawsuits.

OK that’s kids. My boss was going on at a dinner about how great The Da Vincy Code was, and how much history he’d learned, and my wife nearly had a coronary trying not to give him both barrels about the crap ‘history’ in it—and my turn to nearly lose it came when he said to me that I ought to write something great like that.

I managed not to tell him that I’d throw my computer out the window before typing prose like that. Yeah, yeah, you don’t have to point out that Brown is making millions, and my royalty statements barely cover the cost of coming to this con.”

Moderator: “Panelist Four, you haven’t spoken yet.”

Panelist Four: “For me, it’s realism. The more realistic the detail, the faster I’m in.”

bored stiff

That’s when I couldn’t keep up, only getting down nouns and phrases, many with no contexts at this remove.

They began to debate realism, going to readers who invest when they think the author has personal experience. What happens when you discover the author is really not a Navy SEAL with three tours under his belt, but a sixty year old housewife from Nitpick, Iowa. Some people lose their trust. Why, since the text is essentially the same?

After some back and forth about truth =/= realism, the moderator said, “What breaks the contract for you?”

*Shifting genres. Starting off reading something with the tropes of comedy or romance, then mid-stream getting a Red Wedding or child abduction and murder or gruesome disease that totally shifts the tone to another type of story.

puzzled reader

*False promises. The ‘new take’ that isn’t new. The deep, rich historical that reads like modern people in garb spouting ‘enlightened’ modernity to those ignorant figures of the past. The comedy that isn’t funny, the horror that isn’t scary. The self-proclaimed literary art with [insert pejorative here] prose.

*Narrative questions set up that are never answered. “I hate cliffhangers/series that don’t warn you of sequels/ abrupt endings.”

* Unacceptable premise. “I hate first person.” “Obviously unreliable narrators.” “Second person present tense.” “Anything about abortion/rape/Holocaust/(etc).”


What I got from that is the contract is broken by unpleasant experiences that bounce the reader right back into their reading chair, whether it’s something philosophical, factually incorrect, or merely the narrative voice beginning with “I.”

That was followed by a discussion of how the contract for the experienced reader is going to be different from that of a new reader—bringing us back to Eragon. For the new reader, there is no such thing as a cliché. The experienced reader has assembled a library full of sophisticated reading protocols and so it’s harder to surprise them.

Just before opening for questions, the moderator said, “Okay, you can talk about your own writing now. So, your audience has expectations of you, do you deliberately set out to break them, or fulfill them?”

Writer Vs. Bookseller, 1780

Writer Vs. Bookseller, 1780

Jotted down notes: readers will say they crave something new, but a glance at the best seller lists contradicts that. The best sellers all seem to be the same old. So, does that mean a whole lot of new readers, or do people really want what they know?

Patterns—we like patterns, but we respond to different ones.

Some writers begin to feel an adversarial relationship with readers—especially after reading a lot of reviews that all seem to contradict. (Panelist Three said he only reads his reviews after he gets a couple beers under his belt.)

One panelist declared that her contract is with herself, as her own first reader. She writes what she loves to read most.

To which another panelist responded, “Don’t we all?”

(c) Walker Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

(c) Walker Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Someone brought up Resolution.

At that point, the panel disintegrated pretty much into thumbs up and thumbs down on various authors and series, leaving me to wish for another panel on the subject of resolution.

After all, one of the most powerful drives to storytelling is the human craving for resolution. Sitting here, I began considering enduring novels that offer effective levels of resolution—they can be simple and emotional, they can be complicated with ideas, they can be incredibly tense, like a truce.

But this isn’t the entire answer. There are many well known novels refuse the reader a resolution, making a virtue of mirroring the muddle of real life. And this is not a hip new thing—look at Lawrence’s Tristram Shandy.

Bringing me back to definitions, because Shandy is a tour de force to some and a confusing, boring waste of trees to others.

One aspect of writer/reader contract is what gets you to immerse in, and stay with, a book; but the second half is the payoff. But that, I think, is another blog post.


*illustrations from drawings of readers and writers two to three centuries ago, partly because of copyright, but also as a reminder of how long these things have been debated.



The Writer/Reader Contract — 37 Comments

  1. Thanks for starting this conversation. I especially found insightful your comment about new readers: “For the new reader, there is no such thing as a cliché.” It definitely changes my perspective and gives me something to think about as I’m reading.

    Being aware of this relationship I think is also a good way, as a reader, to look at what you’re reading, what you’re willing to try, and if you need to switch things up a bit. Am I taking this “contract” or “trust” too seriously? Am I preventing myself from finding things I would adore simply by staying with what is safe or already known? What is the value of spending time with a book that I’m not certain I’ll love? At what point do I quit a book and move on?

    I’ve recently read several books that would have fallen into the “unacceptable premise” category of books, had I but known more details before reading. And yet these are books whose writing was so exquisite that I could not stop reading and even felt lost when I finished, rereading parts and begging friends to read them so I could discuss. I was only willing to try these for the recommendation of another reader, but even that trust is more tenuous than the contract I’ve formed in my head with several of my “auto-buy” authors.

    • Yes–this weekend at Mythcon I’m falling into many conversations about this subject. Some are beguiled by prose, others by tone, some by subject matter.

      And some will put a book down because one of these three puts them off.

  2. A lot of it for me is the “comparison” notes in the descriptions. For example, I really enjoyed the Hunger Games books, and have read several others whose descriptors heavily pushed that they’re great for people who enjoyed The Hunger Games. I wasn’t looking for a reproduction of those books, but I wanted something with characters I felt something for, strong writing, a good set-up and something I could feel connected to. Most of them I felt were lying – they were nothing like The Hunger Games. They were poorly written imitations of what I was looking for, with simpering main characters, bad prose, and I felt nothing for anyone. To me, that breaks my trust in the author, because I got nothing of what I was promised.

    I’m also reluctant to buy new works from authors I haven’t read because of the fact that most of the time, I *am* disappointed. (I’ll usually check them out of the library first or try for a copy on NetGalley if I’m unsure.) Maybe it’s a first-book syndrome, where they haven’t quite hit their groove yet and it’s not really what I wanted in a story. Maybe it’s that they’re marketed wrong, the descriptions/synopses are full of misdirection, they’re labeled the wrong genre for what they really are, etc. I do love surprises, but they have to be good, not take me completely out of what I’m reading and leave me going, “What the heck did I just read?”

    Mostly, when I’m reading, I need to feel connected to the story and feel something for the characters and their situations. If I feel absolutely nothing for anyone (or complete hatred for everyone), then I feel like my trust has been broken and I won’t bother continuing with the author’s other works.

    • I think one of the worst things for authors is when their books are mis-marketed, usually by someone who might not have read it but is trying to flog the book as “More like [popular book]!” Ten years ago it was “If you love Harry Potter . . .” now it’s “If you love Hunger Games.”

      I WISH they wouldn’t do that. (Except of course for the imitations. And some readers want those.)

      • I know Kit had a hard time with the Nola O’Grady series because it was heavily marketed as Urban Fantasy when it’s not really of that genre. A lot of readers gave it bad reviews for that, when it’s really not the author’s fault.

        • What would you call the Nola O’Grady books if not Urban Fantasy? I read–and enjoyed–them as exactly that.

          • I’d call it a mix of UF and F and SF, it doesn’t quite fit into any of the three exclusively. I read a lot of reviews from people who read it as UF and said it wasn’t, so they felt that it wasn’t very good simply because it wasn’t the genre it was marketed as, and even Kit has said that it really shouldn’t have been marketed that way.

            • My sense is that UF readers expect certain tropes and a certain type of storyline? Kit’s books are not that type–they mix at least two genres. And so they didn’t find the readership who would love them, alas. They really deserve to.

              • And then what do you do if you are nothing like anybody else? Not only do I (so far as I can tell) not write anything like anyone else — each one of my books is different. Like the lady in the Sondheim song, I never do anything twice. Somebody has to be the first, is my hope.

                • Lie the moderator said, all writers feel they are unique!

                  but I guess it is up to readers to define their reading. . . Even if they seldom agree!

              • Yeah I’ve noticed in reviews of UF that if you stray even a little from the common themes and elements, the readers don’t like it. For me, formulaic does not equal interesting.

    • I never really think in terms of the writer-reader contract, but when prompted to, I guess I think about it in terms of the writer satisfying the reader’s expectations. I guess when writers challenge those expectations in some way, then that’s breaking the contract–but sometimes it’s so glorious that most readers end up happy anyway (along the lines of, “I know I promised to repair your plow, but look: instead I’ve created this tool that not only plows the field but also sows the seeds, simultaneously. Okay?” And a bunch of farmers will love that, but a few will wish they’d just gotten the plow back fixed, thank you very much.)

      • (oops, I put this comment in the wrong place–I apologize! It was meant to be a general response to the post, not a reply to Megan–sorry Megan!)

  3. Interesting that the panel members wanted something that “rang true” or was “realistic.” I would have a hard time coming up with more subjective terms, but a good author can get the reader to suspend disbelief–mind it’s happened to me a zillion times. I just don’t know what the writer did to cause it.

  4. I’m glad you brought up Resolution as one of the requirements of the author-reader covenant. This is one of my pet-peeve issues. There is a particular writer I’m thinking of — I won’t say the name — who regularly fails in this respect. Said writer doesn’t provide resolution, but the ingredients of a story. The reader then has to decide which way the elements should go together, and come up with a resolution. This is a personal formula that particular writer uses nearly every single time. That to me is a reneging of the contract. I am a writer. I spend every day thinking of stories and their resolutions. When I read someone else’s stuff, I want to be provided with a situation and resolution that the author has come up with, not be forced to do it myself. If I have to do it myself, I might as well have not picked up the story or novel by someone else. The author in question is a regular award-nominee. Never gets my vote.

    • Resolution is important to me, too. It might be hip and postmodern to leave the reader dangling (that is how I see praise most often expressed), but I feel cheated, and am less likely to try that author again.

    • I *hate* it when authors don’t tie up their loose ends, or provide answers to questions they raise. Half-thought-through stories are lazy. If I wanted to “figure it out for myself,” I would have written the book myself! So basically, I agree with you!

  5. This thread, essay and the responses, is wonderful. This is what I thought the “Reader Response” theory of academic litcrit would be when I first heard the term. It is not. I can’t even define academic “Reader Response” theory except that it seems to be forbidden to interview, quote, or paraphrase actual readers. It’s all “ideal readers,” or “audiences,” whatever that means.

    There’s always the indefinable something, that power that reaches out and slams your eyeballs into the page or screen and won’t let go, despite leaden prose, improbable plots, one-dimensional characters. Why did the DaVinci Code succeed where the DaVinci Clones did not? Yes, some of the imitations sold through, but nothing like the original. And the original remains in print– the imitations are not.[Full disclosure: I collected a number of the clones for a paper early in this century. I only checked this small sample].

    • My own theory is that some people are natural born storytellers, and Dan Brown is one. They might not write the best prose, or even have original ideas, but they are telling a story that the audience (at that time) wants to hear.

      • Being around natural storytellers is a delight! It’s a different skill from the skill of writing a good novel, though I’m sure the two can go together. But to tell a good story, to engage with live people–I so admire people who do that. They can turn a brief two-minute encounter in the checkout line into something that keeps you transfixed.

  6. I think this article is dealing with multiple layers of reader expectations – and of course, expectations are as idiosyncratic as readers.
    The trusted author is one whose work the reader has tested repeatedly without disappointment. Obviously WHY the books don’t disappoint is going to be hard to define, especially since even a given reader in one particular phase of life doesn’t choose all authors for the same reasons. If the reader is expecting a painlessly cookie-cutter volume to offset a stressful day, and the writer suddenly starts massacring favorite characters, the author will probably be expelled from the list of authors trusted in that category. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible for a much trusted writer to cross genre lines or introduce one of the reader’s “unacceptable premises,” but have characters or world views that still resonate so well with the reader that trust ratchets even higher. Sometimes it even spills past the author in question, opening the reader to new areas of literature.
    How to get readers to find compatible writers, and perhaps stretch beyond the usual, is another question altogether. The current tools aren’t overly satisfactory, but they can be helpful. How do you even get books onto people’s radars? It’s harder to find new authors since opportunities for real life browsing have become severely reduced. (I especially hate it that, even if you hear about something that might be interesting, there’s no on-line way to skim anything but the first few pages unless the library owns an e-copy without a ten mile waiting list.) So what is left?

    ? I agree with everyone who has stressed accuracy in marketing. Probably the authors can’t do much about the misleading comparisons, but surely basics such as genre and whether a book is part 2 of a trilogy should be spelled out.
    ? Recommendations or loans from friends do sometimes help. (On the other hand … I was recently presented with 12 volumes of a series. Although I managed all 4 volumes of Eragon, I think this lot has defeated me. How many more ways can a protagonist devise horrific weapons, use them on millions in a futile effort to restore the balance, and be pitied for the resulting blindness/headaches? )
    ? Reviews have mostly become a negative filter for me, e.g. “realistic” usually ends up meaning a high misery and violence index rather than accurate science or history. If it’s “gritty realism,” I run away quickly. However, “trite” sometimes turns out to be splendid. There’s a reason that classic story lines are classic. What matters is how they’re written.
    ? I’ve had much better luck using recommendations from book blogs or authors who also write positively about the more obscure of my trusted authors than with lists of “If you like X.”
    ? I do find extracts helpful, especially for giving some idea of writing style. There’s really no other way to determine that except by reading. It’s especially useful for picking up the more prosaic of tics that “bounce the reader right back into their reading chair.” For example, I’m the opposite of people bounced by book-saidisms: too many “saids” in a row drive me up the wall, and “lean, spare language” is too often code for “pats self on back for insipid writing.” The down side: If those introductory chapters turn out to be deception meant to increase the impact of shock and despair later on, the contract will be permanently broken. I also agree with all of the above on lack of resolution. It destroys a book for me — and there’s no way to know until you have read the thing, unless there are reviewers who don’t consider saying so a “spoiler.”
    ? One prequel on here did lead me to buy a book. And then more by the same author.

    • What about the prequel led you to buy the book?

      I think it is easier to find new books AND tougher. I used to go to the library, which bought pretty much everything new in fantasy and sf. Now, the richest library can’t keep up. I tend to gravitate toward Goodreads, and friends’ blogs where they talk about their reading. There is too much review inflation on Amazon these days (reviews that read like bought ones, even if they aren’t) so I don’t bother with it, and I’ve talked to many who feel the same.

      Thanks for an interesting response!

    • Wonderful comment. I totally agree about layers of reader expectation, and also about book blogs, trusted friends, and excerpts from books. (But no one should expect someone to read twelve books of a series!)

  7. Sorry about the disappearing paragraphing and the bullet points that turned into question marks.

  8. I found the remark about Eragon interesting. I loved it when I read it about 10 years ago and I would have to say I was a pretty experienced reader at that point. I read the 2nd in the series, but didn’t buy the third. Wasn’t apathy on my part, just simply being tired of waiting for it on going on to other books/series.

    The two books I’ve read in the last three years that I’ve hated, well, I didn’t start out hating them. Unfortunately. Instead, I was hooked until the awful part happened. The part that was too realistic, too horrible, too painful, too close to home. Resonated too much.

    I don’t mind reading about abortion and rape. (Not that I like it, especially) But if it fits with the story and moves the story along and causes compassion to rise in me, I’m okay. When it revolts and does not cause a connection between me and the character, then forget it.

    I like reading new story lines. I recently read a steampunk (?) series set in alternate Japan. That was a stretch in the beginning. Lots of terms to learn and the pollution was so obnoxious that it made me sick to my stomach. But I kept plugging away and got really into it after the first 150 pages.

    But I also like reading old story lines. If I connect with the characters, if the description is real enough for me to see, I’m in.

    This was a very thoughtful piece and I’m glad you shared it with us. It’s like bringing a panel home to my living room.

    • Glad you enjoyed it! And if Eragon appealed to you, well, you aren’t alone! I think the author is another of those natural born storytellers, however one might argue about the success or failure of his prose (or some of his more familiar storylines).

  9. Essentially, Sherry Snider is signaling to readers that to keep writers fed, it’s no longer enough to buy their books.

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  12. Thank you for making these notes and starting this discussion.

    I particularly feel ill-disposed to read a work if I have reason to believe (because of their books and/or their nonfiction work, including their interviews and social media posts) that the author thinks I’m a chump, scornworthy, especially because of my gender, ethnicity, or work ethic/style. There are authors whose writings imply that people like me exist to be NPCs, non-player characters.

    I’ve run across an idea from the economics and business world: that there are “search” goods (which you can evaluate before buying them), “experience” goods (which you evaluate as you experience them), and “credence” goods (which you can only evaluate after, maybe well after, you experience them). McDonald’s hamburgers try to be exactly alike, and thus after you’ve tried one, all the future burgers are search goods. No two books are exactly alike, so they’re experience goods — within some book series, an individual book might be a credence good, because you’ll evaluate it differently after you’ve read the rest of the series.

    I see how book extracts, reviews, recommendations, covers, content notes/trigger warnings and other tools help us evaluate whether we want to try new books and new authors, and help us set our expectations. I need to reflect more to think about what causes me to relax and trust a writer, to enjoy the ride without my guard up.

    • Thank you so much for this interesting reply! I had not known that about goods, though I strongly agree about people who seem to be shut out of worthy notice for various reasons.

      Tomorrow, the discussion continues, with talk about resolution.

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