9 May 2013 - 9:07 pm

Reader entitlement

When readers abuse authors, a dragon makes this face before it dies. (Picture by CarbonNYC)

When readers abuse authors, a dragon makes this face before it dies.
(Picture by CarbonNYC)

If you don’t like a writer’s choices, respect them

The beauty of the internet means that, as writers, we can more easily interact with our readers. The ugly side of the internet is that, as writers, our readers can more easily tell us exactly what they think.

I love my readers very much, and I love hearing from them. I encourage feedback and I take it on board… but I make no promises about addressing it. Because it’s my story to tell and I have to make my own choices about how to make it the best story that I can. I am grateful that I have never received abusive feedback and dread the day that I do. That sort of thing hurts.

Recently in the wide world of writing, this subject took a particularly awful turn when someone leaked the ending to Charlaine Harris’s last Sookie Stackhouse book. The end of a popular series is always going to be a hot topic with fans, and the reaction to the ending has been loud, obnoxious, and objectionable. The abuse being hurled about is disgusting, and has even descended into personal threats against the author. Seriously, fans? Threats? It’s a fucking story.

It is natural that some fans will be upset with decisions made about a story, because there’s no way to please everyone (if there was, a whole lot of fanfiction wouldn’t exist, would it?). People are going to form opinions about how they think the story should go, who should end up with whom, and where it should all end up (Jacob vs Edward, anyone? Yes, I made a Twilight reference. Yes, you may shoot me now.).

But abusing the author because she didn’t write the ending you wanted is not okay. Yes, you’ve invested time and emotional energy into the story. Yes, you care deeply about it. Yes, you’ve even spent money on it. We understand that. But the author is the one who has created this gift for you. She has put the time and love into crafting the story you enjoy so much. And at the end of the day, it is her story to tell, not yours. She doesn’t owe you anything.

So if you don’t like it? Tough. You’re entitled to your opinion, and you’re entitled to express it. But you’re not entitled to make demands that an author change her work just because you don’t like it. You’re not entitled to abuse her, and you’re certainly not justified in making threats against her.

Go write fanfiction if you feel that strongly about it. Write your own ending. Write your own awesome, bestselling series that ends exactly the way you want it to (if only it was that easy), and then see how many fans agree with your choices.

At the very least, have a little respect for someone else’s work.

I talk a lot on this blog about readers, expectations, and being aware of the impact that your choices and work as a writer can have. But I don’t dictate what I think writers should choose to do. I believe that people should understand the impacts of their actions and make their own choices, in life and in writing. If someone chooses to do something stupid, or wrong, or objectionable, I’ll say so, but it’s still their choice to do it. Does it make their writing suck? In my opinion, yes. Does that mean I’ll read more of their work? Probably not. Does that mean they should change it? That’s completely up to them.

Neil Gaiman put it far more succinctly than me when responding to a reader’s question about George R.R. Martin’s obligation to them: “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.” (The rest of the post is pretty awesome, too.)

Reader entitlement does not exist. It’s a unicorn dancing on the rainbows in certain readers’ minds. Let’s leave it where it belongs and let writers do what they do best: write stories to share with the world.

Edit: Changed the strapline. It really wasn’t what I was going for in the end.

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  1. Reader with a Big Budget says:

    I was looking for a thoughtful discussion of this issue but I found this instead “Or, if you don’t like a writer’s choices, stfu”

    If I don’t like a writer’s choices, I’ll write a one-star review on Amazon and abjure their books forever . . . and I buy a *lot* of books, and I have friends who buy books, and they have friends who buy books. If you want to kill a series and lose half of your readership, just do what Charlaine Harris did with Dead Ever After. It will work every time.

    Readers, especially readers of long series, have expectations. They expect a writer to remember what they have written in earlier installments. They expect the characters to act in a way that is not unreasonable based on their previous behavior. They expect the author’s stated intensions regarding themes to continue through the life of the series.

    Charlaine Harris was sick of writing this series and, unfortunately, in the last book it shows. I hated it and cancelled more than a $100 in preorders for various versions because it is an inferior product.

    If you haven’t read the series and the final book, you don’t get to have opinion about its relative worth, so why don’t you follow your own advice and stfu?

    May 10th, 2013 at 1:46 am

  2. Francisco says:

    Some people forget that a story is just a story. Stories like that sadden me.

    I wish something like this would work.

    I’ve made a fuller comment about the case raised on the blog post (the on Mary Janice Davidson’s blog).

    May 10th, 2013 at 7:03 am

  3. Francisco says:

    Just clarifying, what saddens me is that people get so aggressive about the choices authors make.

    To Reader with a Big Budget,

    If they make a choice that loses them readership that’s their choice not yours or mine. The author is in complete control. They may get advice fhat an ending is not good but it’s still their choice to make.

    May 10th, 2013 at 7:07 am

  4. Mel says:

    Reader with a big budget – you have a point: starting the post with that tagline (‘or, if you don’t like a writer’s choices, stfu’) doesn’t properly reflect my opinion or message. Looking at it again, it’s not the best start to this post. I didn’t mean to imply that readers had no right to their opinion, which is why I said further down: “You’re entitled to your opinion, and you’re entitled to express it.”

    I completely support reviews and feedback. It’s completely your choice to vote with your reviews, ratings, and wallet. And as a writer, I (and Charlaine Harris) have to accept that that’s a risk whenever we put something out in the world for people to read. So I have no problem whatsoever with the reaction that you stated in your comment.

    It’s when it descends into abuse that I object. It’s when personal threats are made. And it’s when readers demand that the writer do what they want, because they’re invested.

    Being invested is great. Expectations are natural and something every writer has to be aware of (I talk about it a lot on this blog and how it’s a bad idea to abuse those expectations, because readers get upset). And honestly, it’s an honour as a writer to have people be so invested in your work.

    Those things that you listed as reader expectations: I agree. It annoys me when writers fail at those kinds of things, too.

    But let’s keep things in perspective: expectation and investment don’t equal entitlement.

    I believe that a writer should treat his or her readers with respect (especially if they want to keep those readers!), and I believe that respect is a two-way street.

    Also, for clarity: my post didn’t say that Harris’s choice was right or wrong, nor did I say anything about the relative worth of the book (or series). I haven’t read the series (and probably won’t), and I prefer to read for myself before making those kinds of judgements. I’m not saying her work (or any writer’s) is perfect and beyond judgement.

    However, I support Harris’s right to make whatever choice she wishes with her work and not be threatened for it. It’s the treatment of her that I object to, not readers’ opinions of her work. Everyone’s opinion is their own.

    Francisco – yes, that’s pretty much what I was getting at. Opinions are fine, but there’s no excuse for such aggressive behaviour.

    May 10th, 2013 at 8:50 am