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?
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.”
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.”
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.
*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?”
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?”
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.