The reader-writer “contract”

I’ve been thinking lately about how readers interact with the books that they read, and I have a few questions that I’d be interested in seeing others’ opinions on. I’m interested in the idea of the reader-writer contract – the idea that some type of mutual obligation exists between readers and writers.

At the most basic, almost purely commercial level, we have the opinion of someone named Susan Rand, whose article is the first Google hit for “reader-writer contract:”

When an author sits down to write a book, she enters into a contract with the reader. The reader’s part is to buy the book, and to recommend it to his friends. For her part, the writer promises the reader that she will take his hand and guide him safely through the world created in the book. She promises she will not suddenly push him off the path into an abyss, or put boulders – big or small – in his way, to trip him up. She will not lead him down side paths that lead nowhere. She knows that readers have many other activities to distract them, so she will make the book as intriguing, easy to read and compelling/enlightening as possible.

That is, the author should always remember that they’re reliant on the attentions of a paying audience, and therefore must cater to that audience’s desires and comfort level. This is reader as consumer – that the reader enjoys the book or thinks about its contents isn’t even an explicit provision of “the reader’s part;” it’s simply written into his or her purchase and promotion of the book.

Obviously, this model holds true at some level for any author who hopes to make any kind of living off of his or her writing.  So where does that leave the author who wishes to write not purely for an audience, but for him or herself – as well as, one hopes, make a living off of it? Put one way, this kind of author writes his or her beliefs or self , and then casts them out in print form, hoping to touch others with them, like-minded or not. Put another way, this kind of author is sacrificing accessibility and commercial feasibility for art and integrity, and therefore can’t be expected to be taken seriously if he or she then complains about not being appreciated or supported.

Anyway, that’s all very vague, “commercialism” vs. “art” and all the compromises that lie in between, yadda yadda; what I was interested in actually asking was, for you personally, where does the balance lie in the reader-writer contract, if you think one exists at all? To give more concrete examples – because of my particular intellectual bent, I enjoy being mystified and nudged off-balance. I like having the feeling that there are things I will never be able to grasp, and that I’m going to have to scrabble after clues if I want any satisfaction, and that I’ll probably end up dirty and tired and unsatisfied anyway, and have to just lie down on a rock and breathe for a while and wonder about all the things I’ll never understand. On the other hand, one of my friends strongly dislikes the feeling of being off-balance, of her understanding being deliberately obfuscated. Not because she’s intellectually incapable of dealing with it, but because it makes her feel nervous or even belittled when the author holds things out of reach over her head.

Each response make sense for our respective personalities, and because of that, I’m also interested in how personal outlook reflects on reading style and preferences. Where do your preferences lie ? How much are you willing to invest in understanding an author’s aims, presuming the author is good enough to be worth any investment? How much do you think the author is him/herself obligated to make his/her books a welcoming place for readers? And, if you’re willing to talk about it, do you see any of this as growing out of how you generally relate to other people, sources of information, authority figures, The Universe, whatever? I realize this is all highly conditional, so feel free to ramble about anything that seems relevant.

Also, if anyone has any perspective on how this may have changed historically and culturally, I’d love to hear more about it – I have the vague suspicion that the development of reader-response criticism may have changed things, but I don’t really have a broad understanding of how readers’ expectations about books and authors have changed over time and space.

– E

3 thoughts on “The reader-writer “contract””

  1. My sticking point is if I feel I’m being lectured to; that is, if I feel the author has an agenda in writing their book, and that the agenda is more important to them than the story they’re telling. I’ve got a post brewing about this, but for example I couldn’t read Paulo Coehlo’s The Devil and Miss Prym because it felt too much like a morality play—Coehlo was going to tell me what was right and wrong, instead of letting me draw my own conclusions. This holds true even for books whose agendas I agree with (or am sympathetic to); if I want a sermon I’ll go to church, you know? I couldn’t read May Sarton, even though I was really interested in the plot, because she kept beating me over the head with her politics. I don’t like authors who treat fiction like a personal pulpit.

    This totally stems from my Catholic upbringing; I’ve had enough of indoctrinating stories being shoved down my throat (C.S. Lewis, I’m looking at you!). Give me an author whose premise I might disagree with, but who respects my intelligence as a reader (like, say, Hemingway).

  2. I will definitely agree with the above–in fiction. I don’t mind it in non-fiction because I tend to expect that non-fiction will have more of a personal viewpoint. I do prefer that even non-fiction presents a viewpoint while respecting those who don’t agree, however.

    As far as the original question, I do enjoy books where not everything is explained. Part of my philosophy in life (that sounds awfully grand) is that not everything is explainable, or at least not simply. So if there is a character or a scene or whatever that is never fully explained, I’m not bothered. On the other hand, as with everything, there are good and bad ways of setting that out. Sometimes I do feel that the author is just withholding information for the sake of withholding, or because they don’t want to deal with a more difficult part, and that is annoying.

  3. Andy – Yeah, Paulo Coelho is weird (to me) in that he basically self-identifies as an inspirational writer, but wants to be considered a novelist. Result = craw-sticking “novels” that are really morality tales and extended inspirational metaphors.
    Mm, the vital distinction is that the author respect the reader’s intelligence, isn’t it? Both in the sense of not bludgeoning the reader over the head with conclusions, and not being so convinced of of his/her own vast intellectual superiority as to be deliberately, impossibly esoteric. Although of course everyone will have different standards as to what qualifies as “impossibly” esoteric.
    Have you read any China Miéville, or Philip Pullman (specifically the His Dark Materials trilogy), btw? Just picking them as two of the most notoriously political but nonetheless popular fantasy authors in recent years; if you have read them (or really anyone who struck you similarly), I’d be interested in what you thought of how they deal with the balance of politics and storytelling. I’ve also been thinking about the different kinds of integrity that an author can honor within a work (aesthetic, thematic, narrative, entertainment/comfort/inspirational value…) and how different authors and readers tend to weight them.

    Maureen – I’m also a great believer in the inexplicable, if such a thing can be said, so I’m with you there. I used to crave more closure and explanation, but now I love having the sense of an incompletely explored universe. Especially in fantasy, of course! But yeah, there’s the inexplicable or unexplained, and then there’s the lazy author. :P

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