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It's not you, it's me

The word “relationship” has different connotations in different contexts. Someone who says they are “looking for a relationship” means they want someone to date and possibly marry. But there are a lot of other relationships that we're all involved in.

For one thing, when you read a book that someone else wrote, you have, for that brief time, a reader/writer relationship with the author. The writer controls a lot of things in that relationship, but not everything. For one thing, writers often have little say about the book's cover, including the blurb on the back. But, the writer certainly chooses the plot, the characters, and the setting. He (or she, but I am going to just say “he” because it's awkward to say anything else; English sucks when it comes to gender and pronouns) decides how much detail and exposition to include, what tense and person to tell the story in, and whose point of view to use. Plus, of course, there's that harder to define thing called style.

Once the reader starts reading, though, the author has to yield some control. Every reader comes to a story with his own unique perspective. Sometimes a dislike is general, as for those of us (like me!) who can't tolerate present tense novels. Sometimes a dislike is specific, as when the protagonist has the same unusual name as the kid who tormented you in sixth grade and you can't stand to read it. Every choice the author makes could cost him one or more readers.

But so what? There is nothing that every single person likes, not even chocolate. Trying to play it safe isn't a good way to produce a good read. And the neat thing about the author/reader relationship is that neither one owes the other anything. If I don't like present tense, then I don't have to read the book! And the author doesn't owe me anything, either. If he decides he wants to suddenly switch from first person to third half way through the book, he can; it's his book. Of course, if I don't like that kind of seismic shift, then I may never buy anything else by him, but again, this is a no-strings relationship.

On the other hand, the most successful authors are those who do establish a sort of contract with the reader, a level of consistency as to style, and a faithfulness to the genre, if there is one. I once read a mystery where the detective didn't solve the crime, and I was pissed as hell at the author. I don't mean the detective didn't arrest the murderer, I mean he wasn't even sure who it was. A lot of romance readers get incensed if a book doesn't have a happy ending, and some hard science fiction fans will get huffy if the science in a book doesn't hold up to scrutiny. If you write in a genre, you do need to think about what your readers expect and consider carefully whether or not you want to break that implied contract.

In fact, you could even say that not meeting your readers' expectations could lead them to break up with you. -)

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( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 12th, 2010 12:00 am (UTC)
And we all know how messy some breakups can be :)
Sep. 12th, 2010 12:02 am (UTC)
that's one time a Kindle is a handicap. Hitting the delete button is not nearly a satisfying as throwing a paperback against the wall.
Sep. 12th, 2010 12:38 am (UTC)
You throw poor defenseless paperbacks against the wall?

What kind of monster are you? ;-)
Sep. 12th, 2010 01:59 am (UTC)
Hey, they deserved it! And it's better than throwing the writer against the wall.
Sep. 12th, 2010 01:11 am (UTC)
I totally agree--when a writer makes sudden shifts from what they've already established, it had better be a REALLY good shift. One that WORKS, and not one contrived just to be different.
Sep. 12th, 2010 02:00 am (UTC)
Breaking rules is like playing the violin: do it well and it's fine, do it badly and it's painful.
Sep. 13th, 2010 01:09 pm (UTC)
LOL. Yeah, that sounds just about right. I'm flabbergasted at the detective that didn't solve the mystery, though. Isn't that what detective fiction is all about in the first place???
Sep. 13th, 2010 01:11 pm (UTC)
> Isn't that what detective fiction is all about in the first place???

Exactly! I don't mind if he/she can't prove it, or choses not to arrest the murderer, but by god, he should know what happened. It's like deliberately selling a jigsaw puzzle with a piece missing.
Sep. 13th, 2010 09:54 pm (UTC)
Let us all now have a moment of compassion for writers who get bored with the conventions of their genre...
Sep. 13th, 2010 11:33 pm (UTC)
But is it "conventions" or is it truly a contract? In science fiction and fantasy, I don't think there is a real implied contract, like in mystery or romance novels. I mean, if the writer is bored with them, maybe they're clichés, not conventions!

Agatha Christie wrote mysteries, and she managed to come up with pretty much every conceivable whodunnit plot (all the suspects did it, no one did it, the victim did it, the policeman did it, and the detective did it). That does make it a lot harder for those who follow after her, rather like being the painter who came after Da Vinci or Michelangelo.

On the other hand, maybe boredom is one reason writers like to mix up genres and write science fiction mysteries or fantasy romance?
Sep. 14th, 2010 10:47 pm (UTC)
But I think a lot of writers get bored with a convention before most readers do.
Sep. 14th, 2010 11:12 pm (UTC)
Arthur Conan Doyle certainly got tired of Sherlock Holmes before his readers did. Maybe it's because the reader can read lots of other stuff-- scores of books per year-- but the amount the writer can write is more limited?
Sep. 17th, 2010 01:50 pm (UTC)
*sings "Breaking Up is Hard to Do"*

Great post. (Got here via Jon Gibbs.)
Sep. 17th, 2010 01:56 pm (UTC)
Jon does great work. Thanks for stopping by!
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

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