Thursday, January 17, 2013

Give Unto Others: Or Perhaps Not

            Should a writer provide "what readers want?"

        Human relationships are tricky things. Romance, for example, is fraught with misunderstanding and incompatible desires. Most humans expect to meet a “right person” to love or marry, yet must learn how to recognize so elusive a being and to develop healthy patterns of mutual interaction.

            I myself am seeking to better understand my authorial relationship with readers.

            I receive conflicting advice. Writers must choose an audience and write for it specifically! No, writers should simply write what they wish to read themselves. Writers will make no money if they do not respond to market demand. No, writers will never be worth reading if they do not find their own unique voice and hope that others wish to listen to it.

            In his classic How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie instructs his readers to consider others’ wants and desires. He says to frame the presentation of one’s own request in a way that persuades people that they will get what they want if they do what one asks. This applies to writing. If I want other people to read my fiction, I must offer them something desirable, even if only the relief of suspense I have created. I cannot expect anyone to seek out my work if they are disappointed and displeased with the endings I provide. Yet stories which give readers exactly what they want (and expect) are transient and forgettable. In the end, we remember the book in which the boy’s dog dies, the hero is changed beyond repair, or the devastating betrayal is unexpected. Yet even these endings (although not what the reader wants) must satisfy the audience.

            How does one achieve this? In one of my writing groups, the members clamored for the protagonist of my story to act in a way that was completely contrary to the idea of the entire piece. Their feelings demonstrate that my story is not yet successful. Somehow, I must discover a way to persuade my readers to want what I want them to want, and to ultimately accept my answer. For this to happen, my ending must seem to flow naturally from the events that precede it, and (if it is a particularly hard sell) events must be arranged so that the audience feels it to be better, or truer, than the alternatives.

            Oddly enough, it is currently easier to set up a story so that the audience will want the protagonist to do a “bad thing” than a “right thing.” We are all familiar with the mechanics that are used to persuade us that we want the hero to illegally kill the villain. Less comfortable, less satisfying, and less salable is a story in which the hero nobly sacrifices his desires instead of his enemy. This is the true challenge. This is an opportunity to subvert readers’ expectations and provide something genuinely unexpected. I find it an attractively difficult goal and have been pondering it at length. How can a writer do this? I am still working on it. 


  1. Hullo, Anna!

    Good Clive Staples's comments on the role of the artist in society seem apposite here -- the writer being specimen of artist:

    “Until quite recently – until the latter part of the last century – it was taken for granted that the business of the artist was to delight and instruct the public. There were, of course, different publics; the street songs and oratorios were not addressed to the same audience (though I think a good many people liked both). And an artist might lead his public on to appreciate finer things than they had wanted at first; but he could do this by being, from the first, if not merely entertaining, yet entertaining, and if not completely intelligible, yet very largely intelligible. All this has changed. In the highest aesthetic circles one now hears nothing about the artist’s duty to us. It is all about our duty to him. We owe him ‘recognition’ even though he has never paid the slightest attention to our tastes, interests, and habits. If we don’t give it to him, our name is mud. In this shop the customer is always wrong.” Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt, 2002, C.S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night, “Good Work and Good Works.”

    1. Trent,

      Hullo! As I read the quote, I found it startling that the "modern artist" is being rebuked here not for teaching morality or immorality, but for the failure to properly entertain and relate. This provokes all kinds of interesting thoughts about the modern separation between art and entertainment. Have the two spheres separated simply because of the proliferation of mediums and genres in the modern world, or would their development have been different if our society had taken a different cultural and moral turn in the mid-20th century? What is the difference between truly great art with moral implications and the effort of an ideologue to proselytize through "art?" Lots to think about.

  2. Dear Anna,

    I like the way you framed the challenge for yourself: to have the ending flow naturally, to have the audience root for and identify with your protagonist when the protagonist's goal is to overcome temptation and act in accordance with their principles rather than succumb to their temptations. You do have to make sure that you aren't inadvertently making a stronger emotional case for the rightness of justice or protection of the innocent (illegal murder) than for whatever alternative you want your protagonist to pursue instead. Think Frodo and Sam's differing attitudes towards Gollum. The challenge is to write vividly without sounding trite or preachy, but it is possible and most stories I truly love do it successfully. Most sagas (eg. The Narnia, Lord of the Ring, Riddlemaster of Hed series), Anne of Green Gables, Agatha Christie's mysteries, and many more.

    1. Maria,

      That's a good reminder-- the story won't be very significant if it is always quite obvious what the "right thing" is, and that the protagonist will do the "right thing."

      You mentioned Agatha Christie, which reminds me of an interview with mystery writer P.D. James. As far as I can recall, she was talking about how some people object to reading books about crime and murder. She said that people have suggested to her that such things are morally bad to focus on, and have wondered how a writer can maintain integrity while choosing to write about them over and over. She argued that mystery stories are by nature moral, even though they focus on evil deeds, because they are built on the assumption that a crime should be detected and punished-- and therefore, the idea that there is a standard of right.

  3. The medieval literature professor for whom I am a TA is fond of referring to the "diabolic invention we call the printing press," which ended the manuscript era and irrevocably changed the course of English literature. I have an inkling that the thorny problem of audience (Who are they? Do you guess at their identity or ignore them?) really comes into its own with the birth of that diabolical invention and is compounded even more with its younger sibling, electronic communications.

    I commend you for striving after a difficult but noble goal. Drawing readers to feel a healthy satisfaction when the protagonist chooses the "right" over the attractively defiant "wrong" is (if I may wax a bit grandiose) the work of rekindling humanity's potential for nobleness. It often seems to me that the embers of nobility in our society and era are few and weakly smoldering, indeed, but do find them and patiently use them to fire your reader's minds and souls toward greater goodness. I will certainly be one to appreciate such stories!

    1. Heather,

      You stir me to dreams of heroic literatics, whatever they may be.

      Interesting to think of the effects of electronic communications in light of the printing press. Hmm. Did writing for a medieval patron actually provide GREATER artistic freedom, or less? I suppose those writers were often writing both for the patron and for the other, possibly more discerning artistic souls who clustered round the court...

  4. This is so interesting. It makes me think differently about my novel - and why no one seemingly wants to publish it! I'll be back :)

    1. I'm glad you found the post thought-provoking, and I'm delighted that you plan to return! I'd be interested to hear how the post relates to your process of writing your novel.


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