To serve one master – the reader

Lest we forget… there is one single cardinal rule in writing.

The reader is all that counts.

Your book cannot serve two masters (therefore you as the author, cannot serve two masters). It’s not a case of wanting to, or not wanting to. Or – if you’re going to be loved and successful, choosing that master. It is always the reader that the story must serve. Not the publisher, not society, not your own desires, or even intentions. Once the book leaves you, the author, for the final time, what you wanted it to be and do…

Is out of your hands.

If you’re a great author, and your communication skills are fantastic, you may carry your thoughts and intents to the reader. And of course, if they’re appealing, inspiring, comforting: he or she may love them forever.

Most of us are not great authors (nowhere is this more true than those who think they are, it seems). Mostly the reader gets out of your book what they get out of your book, which may very well not be what you, the author, were trying to convey. Sometimes it’ll just be one reader who gets that version of what the book is, sometimes a few, sometimes, darn near everyone.

As the author you can stamp your heels and get hysterical and shriek “That’s not what I wanted you to think. That’s not what I meant. Not what I intended.”

Yes, I have seen a few authors reply to critics like that. Not clever.

You might as well yell at the sea, even if you do it the minute it gets back to you. All you can do is kill their love for the book they received, or be ignored.

The book only serves one master, its reader. Many authors and indeed many film-makers fail to get this. They write a tale to highlight the plight of the rather unpopular and relatively unknown P’ting people of Mondoland who are being murdered by settlers. The resultant book or movie casts the P’ting very sympathetically. It’s also got the coolest laser battle. And somehow its new master only sees the laser battle. If you’re lucky a bit of P’ting culture is remembered, but possibly not.

That’s not the reader’s fault.

What brought this to mind was yet another snide attack by David Gerrold on the Sad Puppies/ Rabid puppies as mentioned an opinion piece in Otherwhere Gazette. As he informed us he wasn’t going to post the link but was going to comment, I assume that’s acceptable him, so I’ll just quote the relevant bits of his screed.

“Lehman has completely missed the point is that he uses Star Trek to justify his own beliefs while overlooking the much more important fact that Star Trek, The Original Series wasn’t about the engineering as much as it was about the “Social Justice Warriors Glittery hoo ha” stuff.
I was there. I know what Gene Roddenberry envisioned.”

I think it’s Gerrold that has missed the point, if he’s saying that the reader didn’t get what the writer (or creator) envisaged…

That’s not the reader’s /viewer’s fault. Readers/viewers take what they will out of a piece. Maybe most took ‘social justice.’ Or split infinitives. But a reader takes what a reader takes. The book – or the movie, or the TV series serves their mind, not the creator idea. And as they are the customer, it’s never their fault. If they like it, they’ll come back for more, even if what they got wasn’t your vision. If they don’t like it, they won’t come back. But you cannot tell them they were wrong. The most you can do is say you weren’t a good enough communicator for that person to get your vision. If it is a lot of people who don’t get your vision, then your book (or movie or whatever) might be a success, but you didn’t communicate, at least with those people. That certainly happens to me. Maybe you’re lucky and you carry a bit of your intent to them. Every now and again I get it right for a specific reader. It’s a great feeling. They get it. I did it right. But mostly, well, I do my best and know I’m not the best. Enough people get it, or enjoy it enough to buy my books, and that, actually, is the bottom line with writing. If the author is writing about social justice… or how to build a fascist utopia, and what the reader gets is cool engineering ideas… so long as they enjoyed it. They’ll be back and maybe you might be lucky next time.

Of course you can just hope they like your stuff. Or you can try and write what they want. Maybe slant it a bit in the direction that you want to communicate about. Of course if that slant fails to gain traction and overwhelms what they did want… you’ve lost. And, if they’re not a captive audience, they’ll find something they do like.

William Lehman thinks that he, and people like him, want engineering and not the glittery hoo ha stuff. You don’t have to listen, or like it. But he’s the customer, that’s what he wants, and that’s what he’ll buy.

What I, or David Gerrold, or Gene Roddenberry, envisaged when we created it, or what we want, he really doesn’t give a toss about. It will serve him now, not us. And it is the future we’re looking to, not the past. I can’t sell books in the past. My time machine is on the fritz again.

It’s really important to find out what customers want, and give it to them. To listen, to try and get how well supported a viewpoint it is. And if you blow them off, even if they say things you don’t like to hear… well, if it’s a few, you’ll live. But if you’re losing ground in sales (as trad sf/f is – PW has them down 11% last year.) listening to their vision… and maybe fitting yours in around it seems a lot cleverer than telling them take yours, or pee off. YMMV.

Personally, hard though it may be to take at times, when they tell me I stuffed up, the greatest gift a reader can give back to me, is telling me what they wanted from my work. If they tell me they got it and loved it I’m a happy man. If they got something else entirely – after all a book interacts with each person differently – and still loved it, I’m still a happy man – but one who takes notes, learns, and adapts. If they tell I disappointed them… I bite my lips and take notes.

I sell to them. I give them what they want. I don’t lecture them.

It was interesting to hear John Scalzi telling us we were never excluded. No really. We’re all just one big happy family. And real fans, all of us, not just ones Mike Glyer thought could be allowed to be. I’m not one of Scalzi’s fans, but he’s a weathercock if there ever was one. Repositioning. Thanks John. But the guests who left by the rooftop are… just a little skeptical. We remember your comments about Toni. And your examples of ‘really the publishers only track the money’ doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny. Bestsellers can move. Sometimes. But ask John Norman, not always (yeah Gor was not really my cup of tea, but he was a bestseller). It’s who the publishers take in at the bottom that’s interesting. Baen actually have a provable track record of being a broad church. No one else cuts it as far as I can see. John Wright – an excellent writer, didn’t start with his present publisher with his present views, and is now selling very well –which means he stays.

I’ll be delighted of course if John Scalzi gets a contract with Baen. Maybe to write ‘Ghost’ fanfic? With lots of zeros on the contract to accurately reflect his worth.

Things have changed now, because authors can be independent.

To return to Gerrold (who is the co-MC of the Hugo ceremony this year and therefore of course strictly neutral this year. You could hardly be taking sides in the nominations process, and then awarding them, could you? Why, that would tarnish the reputation of the award, and its guardian would surely chastise you.) he made a last comment is also worth mentioning.

“If you’re against “the Social Justice Warrior Glittery Hoo Ha crowd” then we to wonder if you’re in favor of the denial of civil rights to women, blacks, LGBT, immigrants, and other minorities?
Because if that’s what you stand for — a return to the days of sexism, racism, misogyny, and discrimination….”

Relax, Mr. Gerrold. The only people who have come out against civil rights — you do know what we mean by civil rights? You know: Desegregation, equality of all before the law, and freedom of speech… Are your friends the SJWGHH… seeing as you guys seem to like acronyms so much. They’re the ones calling for a neo-apartheid, special rules and perks in their favor, segregation (special places and publications for them, but not of course, for anyone else. They can go anywhere, publish anywhere), and to limit free speech to themselves, with anyone who says anything that they don’t like, attacked – you know, demonized with insinuations that they’re racists and stuff, if they can’t be silenced. The Human Wave writers I’ve read seem to do a remarkably good job of not being preachy, or PC, but are a lot more plausibly inclusive, treating humans as… humans. Some good, some bad, but not bad because of skin color or sex or anything else. I can come up with plenty of examples from Hoyt, Correia, even Moi. Gay, Black, Disabled, Religious, White – you name it. And they’re not tokens, but there because, you know, that’s where they plausibly would be, and they do what they plausibly could do. Some are lead characters, and so oddly are all the folk your friends leave out, or turn into automatic designated villains. Generally speaking they’re much more inclusive, accurate and fairly representative than in your SJWGHH novels. It’s a lot easier to find sexism, racism and misandry and discrimination in among the SJWGHH, so you’re relatively safe from us. Talk to them. Honest. We’ve experienced them. They role model themselves on an individual called ‘Requires Hate’.

43 thoughts on “To serve one master – the reader

  1. “To serve one master – IT’S A COOKBOOK!!!!”

    Sorry, but it’s required that I do that.

    I made a similar post on Brad Torgerson’s Facebook post yesterday afternoon. I was 13 years, four months, and three days old when the original Star Trek premiered. Should the message be what the writers intended, or what the audience perceived? What I received in 1966, then later watching the re-runs every day in the frat house in 1971 & 72, was the SHAZAAM! factor. Maybe it did work to indoctrinate me with subliminal messages. If so, it was only one of the subversive shows I watched. There was also Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers’ Show. Those also had good formats, and anti-war, social justice messages. However, to the best of my knowledge there are no conventions in which Laugh-In and Smothers Brothers’ are celebrated, so there MUST have been something other to Star Trek than the message.
    But, yeah, I did get the Star Trek message. Here these nearly 50 years later, my wife is black, my small group leader at church is Asian, and my cat has pointed ears.

    (And for the record, the first David Gerrold book I read, back in the late 70’s, was The Flying Sorcerers, which I loved, and has lead me to have a positive place in my heart for him even before I knew he wrote ‘The Trouble with Tribbles.’ If he gets all wrapped up in defending Glittery Hoo-Haas, I shall be sad.)

  2. It’s odd, for a show that was supposed to be all about Social Justice, the episodes that stay with most of us are about the Wow factor, or had some kool action.

    I don’t recall the titles, but one of the episodes that is still with me today had a conflict between a cloaked Romulan warship vs the Enterprise. It was that “space fight” that stayed with me through the years. Taking submarine warfare to the stars.

    Of the movies, it was “The Wrath Of Khan”. If this movie had any Social Justice message, I missed it. From my perspective it was just a good old fashioned revenge tale with some good action and special effects for the time.

    Then of course there’s the Borg. The SJW’s of the far future, who successfully trample several cultures and blend them together, so everyone has his place, and everyone is happy. Seems to me that those episodes and the movie was about individual freedom vs what the SJW’s want to turn us into.

    But I’m sure I misinterpreted things.

    1. You just hit the jackpot: the SJWGHH gang as the Borg ? Excellent image. Of course, we will leave the Borgifying technology of the SJW Collective as an exercise for the alert mind.

      Or maybe they had an Indiegogo, and contracted it out, ala Correia’s “Christmas Noun 7” scenario. . .

    2. “a conflict between a cloaked Romulan warship vs the Enterprise”

      Balance of Terror. One of my top 10, along side Doomsday Device, City on the Edge of Forever, Journey to Babel, Amok Time & Tribbles.

  3. So, David Gerrold made an appeal to “authorial intent”? Somebody want to point out to him the Intentional Fallacy (much beloved in certain literati circles):

    Wimsatt and Monroe Beardsley wrote in their essay The Intentional Fallacy: “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art.”[1] The author, they argue, cannot be reconstructed from a writing – the text is the only source of meaning, and any details of the author’s desires or life are purely extraneous. Such thinking essentially states that the author’s intended meaning and purpose for the exposition are fundamentally unnecessary to the reader’s interpretation.

      1. I was unaware of that :-). It seems the English Lecturer attempting to give me a hard time and praising Gerrold brilliance was likewise unaware.

        1. Speaking of which that thread is getting hard to follow. However your friend the EL doesn’t seem to be present today. At least I haven’t seen any of his posts with a Feb 23 on it.

          What I have seen are several people that seeming have blundered into things. Confused like. Maybe liberals but definitely not part of the Collective.

          1. Angus, I think he was angry with me at first for rather embarrassing him – which um, I did because he was bullying folk and then challenged me directly. Yeah he was unwise to blunder in, but he’s obviously used to winning. He’s good with words, but not really good with internally consistent logic – which is something I have to be good at as an author who writes complex, often whodunnit style stories. His maths/stats was his weak point, but he felt he had me pinned as some kind of paranoid conspiracy theorist. When he actually looked at the RH lot – which fortunately came from someone he couldn’t believe equally nutty, I think he was actually genuinely embarrassed. I felt a little sorry for him, because well, when you start to discover that one of your main props (that I was some kind of self-deluded nutter) is not supported by the facts -and that actually maybe the rest was correct too (I suspect he looked at a few of the ‘reading lists’ too, and began to re-assess.) That’s fair enough. It takes a damn big man to man up and admit you screwed up totally. He at least got half way.

    1. The purpose of the Intentional “Fallacy” and the Affective “Fallacy” is to allow literati free rein while squirting out nonsense for tenure or other purposes.

      1. Wait, so literary theory with no relation to ‘does it work’ is a waste of my time?

        Wow, I’m going to have to completely later my life plans. I was going to study English and sell hamburgers and coffee. Now I’m going to study welding and machining, and sell fabrication services.

      2. Oh yes. It’s clear nonsense, which they imagine they can make a logical rule by dubbing its defiance a “fallacy.” Rather obviously the author has an intent when he writes anything, and that intent is vital to understanding the meaning of the story, though it is true that sometimes he may communicate more than he intended.

  4. What about the case when the reader approaches something he has assumptions beforehand, and then of course sees what he assumes is there? SJWs, or SJW influenced readers and Heinlein, for example. Big White Alpha men oppressing women and POCs?

    1. So what? Dave (or any other author) can’t control that. From what Dave said, if somebody gets such a bad opinion of the book, the best thing is to do is “not respond”.

      If a reader says “I like the book except for ….” or “I like the book but have you thought of adding …”, then the author might “adjust his writing” to please the reader.

      However, IMO if the reader hates the book for “stuff” that exists only in the reader’s mind and wasn’t “part of what the author intended”, then there’s not much the author can do to change the reader’s mind and the author shouldn’t worry about that reader’s opinion.

      There’s been comments elsewhere about “you can’t please everybody”.

      IMO Dave is saying that the author should not attack the reader for “not enjoying what the author intended the reader enjoy”.

      IMO that definitely applies to somebody who hated everything about the author’s book.

    2. It is one thing if it is someone else being misunderstood, and another thing if it is yourself.

      If my art needs an explanation to be comprehensible or enjoyable, than I have failed as an artist. I take notes, and figure out how to improve when I try again.

      If my art is good enough that people like it on its own, then maybe an explanation that won’t overshadow the art, while putting most effort into improving future art.

      Take Drake’s Books of the Elements as a case study. Drake was a convert from the ‘Art should stand on its own school’ when he found that people liked hearing about the classical history he was basing things on. The people who think that describing Rome as a slave society is an endorsement of slavery are probably not his market.

      1. Drake is one of those guys who can’t help assuming (in the back of his head) that everybody will recognize X battle and Y social attitude and Z piece of legendry. He found out that this was not true, that people appreciate annotations, and that professional critics and reviewers need their hand held even more than the normal reader.

        So now, he tells people what to expect and where he got certain snippets, and everybody is happy. (Or mostly.)

  5. The other thing Gerrold fails to understand is that the messages in Star Trek – which certainly DID exist – bear little resemblance to the messages of the SJW/GHH crowd today. Take, for example, “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.” The moral in said episode was FAR from subtle: Racial differences are trivial, and focusing on said differences will guarantee your annihilation. Yet the SJW/GHH ideology THRIVES on stoking the fires of ethnic and racial conflict; tolerance isn’t actually in the SJW’s vocabulary.

    1. Thank you for remembering the title of the episode. As I was reading Mr. Freer’s post, I thought of that episode… as in: What was the name of that crappy episode that shoved racism in your face, and was boring as well?

      Authors can certainly inject their values and beliefs and still have a great story. My most recent example would be the Maxwell Saga by Peter Grant. The inner struggles of Maxwell’s thoughts and decisions as to what is right and honorable provides guidance in a way that increases the drama and tension of the story without shoving it in your face and making it boring.

      Heinlein, while discussing Rodin’s Fallen Caryatid uses the example that anyone can picture a pretty girl. Great skill is to show the pretty girl as an old woman. Greater skill is to take the old woman and show the pretty girl as she once was. (I may have those two reversed.) The penultimate skill is to take the old woman, portray her exactly as she now looks, but force the viewer to see the young girl she once was.

      Even social commentary you approve of can get in the way of a good story. My example of that would be “Pallas” by L. Neil Smith. While I certainly approve of his libertarian message, the story comes off a little too preachy for me. He has let his agenda get in the way of my enjoyment of the story.

      Bottom Line: I am here to enjoy myself. Clever science, magic theory, plot twists, exciting dialogue are all signs of good authors. A little bit of social justice may be OK, but realize, my social justice may not be quite the same idea as your social justice and ‘trendy’ social topics have a short ‘sell by’ date.

    2. The other thing Gerrold fails to understand is that the messages in Star Trek – which certainly DID exist – bear little resemblance to the messages of the SJW/GHH crowd today.

      And TOS was also willing to present both sides positively. In “A Taste of Armageddon” we get a strong argument against “remote control war” (a pretty clear argument against the proxy wars of the Cold War). In “A Private Little War” we get an argument for arming one side of a society when your opposition arms the other in order to restore the balance and leave some modicum of self determination to that society. And neither episode flinched from the downside of what they were arguing. In the former, fighting directly rather than by proxy (computer simulation in the story) brings back the full horror of war–leading to, perhaps, choosing peace instead). And the “spoiling” of the “noble savages” in the latter is underscored with “I will kill them” and “serpents, Mr. Scott. Serpents for the Garden of Eden.”

      And let’s not forget that in “Let This be your Last Battlefield” they portrayed both sides as being at fault, with neither being willing to give up their hatred.

  6. Requires Hate, whom, it must be pointed out, is neither straight, male, white, Christian, or conservative.

      1. I will check my privilege when I’m at least half of those five. Though I suspect I’ll still have none to check. Can check my plunger, anyway.

  7. Whatever other messages and intents that Gene Roddenberry had, he apparently had his mind on two things:

    Interesting story and presentation.

    Get the thing filmed/taped on time so the show stays on the air.

    His other priority was apparently “Sleep with female castmembers other than my wife,” but it would seem that even sex was subordinated to the above two priorities.

  8. They’re the ones calling for a neo-apartheid, special rules and perks in their favor, segregation (special places and publications for them, but not of course, for anyone else.

    If I ever went to a con and saw one of those “racial safe spaces”, I think I would have a difficult time not posting a sign nearby with the legend:

    “Jim Crow Memorial Hallway and Safe Space”

          1. They have their own money? As in, earned all on their own from ickthy Capitalism? Not stolen at all?

  9. I sure wish Gerrold would shut his piehole and spend that effort finishing the Chtorr series.

    Or, if he has become so senile in his old age perhaps I’d rather he not.

    1. Don’t expect much. Gerrold has been taken over by the Collective, and is spewing their garbage.

    2. Once his second ‘buy a Redshirt in my upcoming book for charity!’ campaign ended with no book even years later (think it was the fourth Dingilliad book, that time), I decided he didn’t intend to actually write anymore.

  10. The notion that anyone who is not impressed with the Glittery Hoo-Hah bull sh*t is therefore supporting the straw-army they fight against is both laughable and vile.

    1. This. It’s like the people who assume that all hunters must want to see all of NATURE! paved and turned into a carnival shooting gallery, once they finish exterpating all non-human animals. Or that people who don’t buy the AGW/Globull Climate Change/whatever it’s called now can’t possibly be interested in stewardship and conservation, because, GLOBAL WARMING!1!1 Although now that I’ve finished clearing the drive and walks of 6″ of global warning, and seen the gas and electricity bills for the past month, I’m starting to favor more 68 F days, thank you muchly. 🙂

  11. “With lots of zeros on the contract to accurately reflect his worth. ”

    Reminds me of a bit I saw on a PBS show once. The bit was an ongoing thing called Mathnet, a sendup of Dragnet involving math. One of our intrepid math detectives has gone undercover as an oil sheik and written a big check to one of the bad guys. Bad guy’s eyes get big and he says “Look at all those zeros!” Mathnet guy says “There are plenty more where those come from; zero means nothing to us.”

  12. Halfway through Peter s Stand Against The Storm. Fantastic.
    I also took time out to watch City on the Edge of Forever and Trouble with Tribbles.
    Wow. I hadn’t remembered LT. Uhura’s dresses as being that short.
    Was that one of the messages?

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