Susan sent us a link to a Charlaine Harris blog entry about the nature of the writing process, and the part readers play in that process.
I’ve noticed lately that quite a few readers seem angry if books don’t turn out in a way that would have made them happier. That’s an attitude I find hard to understand. (Maybe it’s my age? I don’t know.) … I know that readers have every right not to be happy with the way a book ends, or with the way characters meet their fate. But to be angry with the writer? The characters belong to the writer. I know in a certain sense they belong to the reader, too; but the characters live in the writer’s mind and at her/his will.
Well, there’s anger, and then there’s anger. But I don’t think the feelings of betrayal are that inexplicable—Misery is an effective horror novel because Annie Wilkes is a rather mundane, everyday creature exaggerated to grotesque extremes, which tends to be a specialty of King’s. She’s your biggest fan—and you don’t want to piss off your biggest fan.
Reading for pleasure is a deeply personal process—and when you’re reading fiction, it’s also a deeply emotional process. I know I’ve become angry at authors for fucking up their stories. It’s not the personal, directed rage I’d feel towards somebody who had actively done me wrong, and it’s not the deep, sustaining slow burn I feel when I encounter what I perceive to be social injustice. Later on in the blog, Harris mentions that the writer is God, and I think she’s hit the nail on the head, because you know what? People get angry at God all the time. It may not be rational—it may, in fact, be a completely useless endeavor, but it’s a very human urge.
There are different types of anger, too, and I think it’s important to distinguish between them. There’s the anger I feel when I finish a truly awful book. When the craft displayed isn’t inept so much as in need of major reconstructive surgery—so much so that I have no idea how the book got published—I tend to feel pissy at the time and money I’ve wasted. I don’t expect a choir of angels singing every time I open a book, but I do expect a base level of competence.
And then there’s the anger at an author when she starts out terrifically, and then fucks it the hell up further down the line (with certain authors, like a certain somebody whose name starts with “L” and ends with “aurell K. Hamilton,” the fucking is literal as well as metaphorical). In a rather strange way, it’s a compliment to the author. The readers are obviously emotionally invested in the book and the characters; the fact that they’re unhappy with the turn of events may be tiresome (and I’m all for an author staying true to her vision, because writing solely to please the fans is a pretty disastrous proposition) but it shows that at least somewhere down the line, you did something right.
I do find the question of who the characters belong to to be an interesting question. The author has ultimate control, but the reader plays a crucial part in the interpretation process. They may not spend as much time with the characters and story as the author does, but the ties that are created can be every bit as strong and real. The readers don’t—and really shouldn’t—get a say in how the story goes, but I can certainly understand their proprietary urges.
The writer is determiner of fate for his or her characters. Writing is a lone pastime, not a group endeavor. It doesn’t take a village to write a book. It takes one person, shut up in a room for hours on end.
This little bit here made me think about the creative process and how we tend to have this idealized vision of the author as this Glorious Isolato, struggling with her vision and her muse. And then she hands it in to the editor, who asks her to cut 5,000 words so the story is tighter and finds a continuity error that needs to be fixed, and the copyeditor, who catches some typos and points out gently that switching tenses every other sentence makes for a jarring read. Yes, a book is written mostly alone, and as I’ve already said, when it comes down to reader whims vs. authorial vision, authorial vision should win, but I think writing a book is a somewhat more collaborative effort than what we give credit for. A good editor is worth her weight in gold; it’s not a coincidence that certain authors start sucking when they hit the big time and are given more space to be self-indulgent. Cf Rice, Anne and BATSHIT INSANITY.
So some things to think about (and if they sound a little like textbook discussion questions, blame law school for putting me in that frame of mind):
What was the last book you got angry about?
Why were you angry?
Were you mad at the book, or at the author—or both?
Who do you think the characters truly belong to: the author? The readers? Both? Neither?
Authors out there: how strongly do editors influence your vision?
Editors out there: How do you keep your authors happy?