The Devil’s Advocate
It’s clear from my previous post in this series on Audience Entitlement that I’m in agreement with Neil Gaiman – the author does not work for the audience. Or as Mr. Gaiman puts it, “the author is not the audience’s bitch”.
However, a career in writing wouldn’t be possible without an audience. So we can also say that an author who doesn’t work for an audience… probably won’t have one. So let’s play Devil’s Advocate, turn this discussion on its head, and say the following is also true:
The audience is not the author’s bitch.
Think about it – the audience doesn’t have to put up with an author who doesn’t give them what they want.
So am I playing both sides by saying the author doesn’t work for the audience, but still owes them something? Not necessarily. I’m saying the author doesn’t work for the audience, but if they want to have an audience, they can’t really tell them to go screw themselves. We could call this ‘good business sense’ or ‘common courtesy’, but for sake of this article, lets call it a ‘voluntary obligation’. It’s also a conditional obligation: IF the author wants to grow/keep an audience, THEN they have some obligations to the audience, but what are they?
What obligations should an author have to their audience? What can an audience reasonably expect from an author?
We could list a million things, and six billion people would still disagree. You can’t please everyone. Everything the author does is going to piss some people off. (This includes doing nothing at all!) But I think the essence of what the author owes to the audience can be nicely summed up in two words: Honesty and Respect.
The first element the author owes to their audience, their publishers, and themselves, is Honesty. Being true to the story. This could be harder than it sounds, and overlaps the terrain known as “artistic integrity”, a topic I’ll post on later.
Honesty is easier to point out when it’s missing, so I’ve compiled a list of dishonest practices I see from authors and their publishers.
Contractual Obligation: You know of what I speak – books that smack of ‘time and money are running out, so I better get this done’. Authors who sign a multi-book contract and lose heart in the middle of the series. (You know who you are, and so do we). The result? Lame plots and wooden characters in cookie-cutter situations that the readers think they could have written better themselves. They’re probably right. Preposterous Leaps of Faith that don’t require you to simply suspend your disbelief, you actually have to tie it up in the woodshed.
Of course, it could just be shitty writing. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, but you won’t have to read much to find obvious cases of Contractual Obligation Writing. Especially when the author squawks online about their jaded experience. (Here’s a hint: Don’t ever do this.)
Bestseller Knock-Offs: Anyone else sick of all the Twilight book cover knock-offs? It’s sad and obvious when authors try to cash in on the latest bestseller. “If you liked Harry Potter, then you’ll Love this!!!” I doubt it because I’m not likely to read your cut-n-paste adventure.
Misleading Covers and Cover Copy: Similar to the Bestseller knockoffs, there’s books with covers and copy text that has NOTHING to do with the story inside, which makes you think the printer got the book covers mixed up.
Genre Stretching: How about people stretching the limits of the story’s genre just so they can get into the Genre Of The Month Club? Imagine picking up a Paranormal Romance, and discovering that the “Romance” is the kiss the hero gave his wife on page 3 before going off to battle demons for the next 397 blood-soaked pages?
Given, some of these problems are choices made by the publisher, but they reflect back on the author, coloring him/her dishonest.
There’s more examples of dishonesty I could throw out there (and feel free to add your favorites in the comments below) but I think I’ve made my point. Even if authors don’t care about their audience, their writing will be better overall, and their writing careers will be more substantial if they remain honest and true to the story, themselves, and their audience. Please don’t fake it, the audience isn’t stupid and they aren’t your bitch.
If Honesty is a fluffy term, then defining Respect is as difficult as nailing down cigarette smoke. Respect has less to do with the writing itself and more to do with the way the author conducts him/her self in public and in communications with others. I’d say Honesty relates more to what is said, and Respect relates more to how it’s said.
Once again, the effects are easier to see if they are lacking, so let’s take a look at some authors methods of being disrespectful to their audience.
Lateness: I don’t get to badger anyone about this one, since I was born two hours late and never caught up to the rest of the world. Turning in a manuscript late to the publisher, showing up late for meetings, interviews, webchats, etc. is disrespectful. Nuff’ said.
Rudeness: Examples of author rudeness abound, but most are seen on the social networks, where replies aren’t as likely to be thought out before they are sent. Twitter, bulletin boards, comments, and e-mail replies are all fertile ground for snarky rebuttals and flaming.
Another example of rudeness is No Reply At All. I can’t tell you how many e-mails I’ve sent to midlist authors (that’s right, writers whose very paychecks are dependent on word of mouth) and I never received a reply. If you’ve got so much e-mail that you can’t keep up with it, then you have a problem that a LOT of authors wish they had. Get an assistant.
Combatting Disrespect with Disrespect: This is a variant of Rudeness and I bring it up only because I’ve seen it happen firsthand. This could be an area where Honesty and Respect are mutually exclusive. If you Honestly feel justified in disrespecting someone then to be Respectful would be Dishonest… That’s a no-win situation, and I guess you just have to pick one and live with it. (Like cell phone providers.)
If Trent Reznor wants to tell his fans to fuck off that’s his prerogative, but it isn’t terribly respectful. Trent chose to be honest to himself and disrepectful to certain members of his audience. This isn’t the best choice for everyone, but it’s the choice I’ve made before (in case you think I’m disrespectful for having swear words in my blog post.)
The Story So Far (for those too busy to read this ungodly-long blog post)
1 -The audience is not the authors bitch.
2- The author is not the audience’s bitch.
3 – Authors don’t HAVE to be Honest or Respectful to their audience. If they want to Lie, Cheat, Deceive and Swindle their audience they certainly can. But if they were any good at these things, running for political office pays better, and is a lot less work than being an author.
4- Authors who want to grow and keep an audience would do well to practice some Honesty and Respect.
The third (and last) post in this series on Audience Entitlement will reconcile these points into a Harmonic Convergence of Utopian Author/Audience Relationship Nirvana. I will become the Author/Audience Relationship Guru and go on Oprah. So, stay tuned…