If you think about it, writing – any sort of writing – is a form of communication between author and reader. And I use the term ‘communication’ very deliberately. Authors plan their stories, put them together, and send them out to readers. Sometimes they have other kinds of messages (social, political, environmental, etc.), but even when they don’t, their stories serve as tools for communication.
But it doesn’t just work in one direction. After all, communication implies that messages are sent, if you will, in both directions. Readers respond to what the author says through book reviews, blog comments and so on. Sometimes they go to conventions and other gatherings where they can meet authors in person. In fact, I know of several blog friends (you know who you are) who’ve reached out to authors for interviews and Q&A opportunities.
This back-and-forth between authors and readers isn’t new. Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that Conan Doyle was quite ready to be done with his creation. He wrote his vision of Holmes’ end in The Adventure of the Final Problem. But that wasn’t what readers wanted. They made it abundantly clear that they wanted more of Holmes, despite Conan Doyle’s feelings about the matter. In the end, he was persuaded to bring his creation back.
Here’s what Agatha Christie’s detective story novelist Ariadne Oliver has to say about the author/reader relationship. In Cards on the Table, she works with Hercule Poirot, Superintendent Battle, and Colonel Race to find out who murdered the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana. At one point, Mrs. Oliver provides some useful information:
‘‘You’ve been the goods, Mrs. Oliver,’ he said. ‘You’re a much better detective than that long lanky Laplander of yours.’
‘Finn,” corrected Mrs. Oliver. ‘Of course he’s idiotic. But people like him. Good-by.’’
And that’s not the only story in which Mrs. Oliver mentions both her frustration with her creation and her acceptance that people want to read about him. It’s said that Christie used Mrs. Oliver’s character as a way of poking fun at herself, and sometimes, of expressing her feelings. It’s also said that she was as fed up with Hercule Poirot as Mrs. Oliver is with her Sven Hjerson, but continued to write about him because that’s what her readers wanted. If that’s true, it’s another example of the ways in which readers make their views known to authors.
With today’s instant global communication, it’s easier than ever for readers and authors to be in contact. I’ve had the distinct pleasure and honour of having several authors whose work I respect comment on this blog and send me emails. It’s very kind of them to take the time to do so, and it’s given me real insights. And it’s not just a matter of blogs. Sites such as Goodreads and Amazon are virtual meeting places for writers and readers. And many authors include options on their websites for contacting them.
In some ways, that can be beneficial for both sides. Readers can feel a connection to an author, and (hopefully!) therefore, a greater connection to that author’s work. And some authors really do pay close attention to what readers say. For example, P.D. Martin’s Coming Home, the sixth in her Sophie Anderson series, was,
‘…written with input from anyone who wanted to affect the plot and outcome of a crime fiction novel. Anyone and everyone could vote, watching their plot choices come to life six days later!’
It’s a very different approach to writing a novel, and shows how today’s technology can make reader/author communication easier than ever.
Authors can benefit from knowing what makes their work appealing to readers (and what isn’t working). I know several authors who regularly look for patterns in reviews of their work, to see if there’s something that they need to re-consider.
On the other hand, there is the fact that sometimes, authors do nasty things to their characters, even characters whom people like. I think we can all come up with examples of authors who’ve killed off beloved characters (no names – no spoilers). And sometimes, authors take their series in directions we don’t anticipate. Should authors necessarily check with readers before doing such things? Speaking strictly for me, I don’t think so. Of course getting a book published is an ‘ensemble effort,’ in the sense that the wise author pays attention to what others say. Editors, agents, and readers have valuable ideas. So do other authors and those who serve as first readers for a manuscript. Balancing that important input with the author’s own ideas and inspiration is tricky.
What do you think about all of this? Do you contact authors with your input? If you’re an author, how do you stay in contact with what your readers want?
And…talking of such things… Several of you have asked me to add on to some of the short fiction I’ve put up on this blog. That means a lot to me – trust me, more than you know. So I’m going to let you choose which of my stories should be continued. Here are your options:
Check ‘em out if you’ve forgotten them, and then feel free to vote in the poll below. Whichever story gets the most votes when the poll closes (in about a week) gets continued.
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Coldplay’s Talk.