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’.