What, if anything, do readers owe authors?
I was going to write an answer in the comments on Spare Ammo’s post, but I got too wordy and figured, hey, I’ve got a blog, might as well do the thing properly.
Buying/obtaining works legally is the baseline of what a reader owes a writer, in the most literal sense. But there are things I try to adhere to as a reader, specifically if I’m going to go public with my opinions. “Owe,” in this case, is too strong a word, but I have my own personal standards, which by definition are not blanket statements for all readers.
First of all, I want to attempt to give all writers the benefit of the doubt, until such a time as they have genuinely earned any criticism or derision I have for them. I love snark, and I love sarcasm, but sometimes a reviewer is so very obvious about their biases, that tearing apart the author’s biases becomes an exercise in painful irony rather than any kind of genuine critical thinking. Someone being an asshole is one thing; someone simply not being a great writer (or not having a good editor) is another thing entirely and I like to think I would not be cruel to someone who is trying their best with good intentions.
I also “owe” them the right to be as opinionated about readers as I am about authors. I know this question is coming mostly in response to Joanne Harris’ manifesto, though there are writers who are much more extreme in their outright disdain for readers (*cough*AnneRice*cough*). I honestly don’t have much against what Harris had to say, mostly because it’s sound and fury, signifying almost nothing, but also because I can see her perspective, even if it is in some opposition to my own. I disagree that there is some sort of general air of entitlement among readers on the internet, but I do agree that there is a vocal minority (as much as I hate that term) of people who think that they are owed a performance because they paid for an artist’s work, or that they are owed certain things for free because being a fan is somehow like being a patron (not the same thing). I went to art school- there really is a sense of entitlement for some people surrounding artistic production that is different than expectations of “real work.” I dislike Harris’ throwaway remarks about readers “demanding” diversity, tolerance, etc. We should demand those things- we should expect authors to not be racist, sexist, homophobic, hateful, etc. That doesn’t mean you can’t write about those things, it just means you need to be cognizant of what you are doing with them. If I complain that your characters are all white and middle class and that bores me to tears, I’m not demanding that you change them. I’m just informing you why I won’t be reading your work anymore, or why it bores me. There is a difference between “demanding” an author change or do work they don’t want to do, and offering criticism from a personal perspective. I also don’t care for her inability to see why inserting herself into a negative review conversation is just a bad idea. That conversation is not for her, even if it is about her work.
I do not owe authors positivity, merely credulity and supporting evidence or qualifiers for my statements. My opinions are for myself and other readers. I will inform a writer I like if I have written something genuinely positive about them, but I will not force my negative opinions into their personal space. We live in a climate of kneejerk reactions, thanks to the speed with which we can now express those reactions, so I’m not surprised certain small segments of readers would make Harris and other writers feel a different set of demands from writers 20 or 30 years ago, just like I’m not surprised an equally small but loud segment of writers are bitter and unable to tell the difference between criticism and cruelty, or suggestions and demands. Even the most logical person is subject to feeling threatened by changes in the status quo; that’s why it’s the status quo.
Writers do need to come to the realization that, while they deserve compensation for their work like anyone else who creates for a living, they do not have the right to control the conversation about their work. Art doesn’t work that way. Once a work is released to the public, it no longer belongs to you. The legal rights to the work—to its reproduction, its use, etc., do—but the reception and analysis of it do not. The most valuable skill I ever learned in art school was how to give and accept constructive criticism; it forced me to step away from my work and look at it through someone else’s eyes, as well as how to frame my judgments in a way that makes them meaningful rather than simply positive or negative. There are asshole readers, just like there are asshole writers, but trying to jump in defensively over every negative comment is unfair to readers and cruel to yourself. You can’t please everyone all the time, and criticism has always been a valuable tool for the assessment and understanding of art.
I could go on and on, but these are the ideas uppermost in my mind after this teacup tempest. Like I said initially, these are simply my personal perspectives, and don’t apply to readers who may feel differently. I will likely think even more about these things as time passes, and some of my opinions may change based on new information or a longer cogitation. No one ever accused me of being consistent.
(It is also my belief that Harris' statements were intended to be provocative, since her presentation was a literal "provocation" to spark debate at the Manchester Literature Festival. In other words, it was a set-up.)