January 2nd, 2007

book and glasses

What we owe

Inspired by several recent conversations, most recently of all by james_nicoll's post here.

So - what does a writer owe a reader?

Let's look at first what the writer has little or no control over, first, when it comes to the publication process, working backwards.

- Publicity is a tough one to tackle. It's something that the author both has to bank on doing, and cannot do too much of personally because too much of a good thing CAN backfire and the author, once labelled pushy and self-centered and egotistical and unable to talk about anything but themselves or their work, will find it hard to shake that label. Personally speaking, I will embrace opportunities that come floating my way and I will even seek out a few - if I have contacts in the media I will let them know a new book is coming out, I'll find out if I can let certain people have review copies which might gather a bit of mention somewhere, I'll do readings or signings even though they are often very lonely occasions, I'll go to conventions and conferences and mingle and chat about all kinds of things AS WELL AS a new and forthcoming books in the hope that being perceived as a halfway interesting person might induce someone who does not otherwise know me to pick up a book in the hope that a book written by such a halfway interesting person might wind up being halfway interesting. But even all this is a relatively recent phenomenon - I mean, the author doing this off their own bat. Publicity - at least in traditionally published books by reputable publishers - has always been the purview of the publisher. Advertising, review copies, possible media events, stuff like that. The author is increasingly expected to take a bigger and greater part in the publicity events - but the book has already BEEN WRITTEN. The best publicity in the world won't change what's in it. The author doesn't owe empty hype.

- Packaging. Stuff like cover art, for instance. SOme writers get wonderful and appropriate artwork, others get things which makes them clutch their heads and wonder if anyone, anywhere during the process, had actually read the book at all. Cover art makes a reader reach for a book, or recoil from a book. But most people who are even remotely plugged into the publishing culture will know that the author is extremely lucky is he or she even SEES a cover sketch before being presented with a cover mock-up and being told, "here's your cover, we hope you like it". Personally speaking, I have a cover Fairy Godmother and most of my covers so far have been pretty damned good ones, and some of them have been great (US hardcover "Jin Shei", anyone?" But even though we all know, of course, that you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, people DO. It's just impossible not to. It's also damned hard to remember sometimes that what's inside the book may or may not bear a resemblance to what the cover leads you to expect to be there - and that you shouldn't be angry at the WRITER for a failure of that expectstion. While on packaging, we should also tackle the question of typos, badly bound books, stuff of that ilk. Most writers turn in relatively clean MSS these days (we all have spellchecker, after all). Copy edits and line editing catch (theorretically) what's left - and yet it's one of the inalienable truths of this field of endeavour that books that have been through six layers of editing will STILL have typos in the finished product, quite often typos that had not been there in the original MS, and the only entities you can blame for THAT are the typo piskies. Most writers are perfectly at ease with spelling and grammar, and you'd better believe that those who aren't have been helped along just a little on the way. LIttle mistakes are piskie stuff. Hopefully more egregious errors of fact, for instance, would have been caught by someone along the way and fixed too - but if it's a whopper of a mistake and it still slipped through I guess you can hold the author responsible for THAT. In other words, save your fire for THAT firing squad. SLoppy writing is just sloppy writing. But we'll get back to that...

- ...right about now.

Writing. That's what it's all about. Story. THAT's what the author owes the reader - a good story, with some emotional truth to it, and a story scaffolding which doesn't have to be eternal, it is perfectly okay if it collapses as soon as you leave the book, but it has to be solid enough to support a willing suspension of disbelief while you're inside the story itself. Characters who ring true, who don't all sound alike or think alike, who have real problems and who solve those problems themselves. Situations with real drama (and not idiot plots which would not exist if only any two of the blundering idiots within the storyline would only TALK to one another for FIVE-FREAKING-MINUTES and clear the air.

What the writer owes the reader is story.

And THIS story. The one you're holding in your hand. A series, or a trilogy, is a covenant of sorts - and it's just not sporting when (to take two extremes known to me) an author whose first and very promising book was billed as the first of a trilogy simply loses interest or gets "overwhelmed by life" or whatever and never writes another word leaving his initial readers dangling, or an author who *cannot stop* and whose bloated books in which nothing of particular note seems to happen just keep coming. But the point is, those are failures of expectation, not of story. The authors have broken a covenant. The real failure is a failure of story itself, rather than of how many books it is supposed to be contained in.

That's the bargain. The writer writes, the reader reads, adn teh story binds them together. That's all that is owed. The writer might owe rent to his or her landlord, self-esteem to him or herself, a career to his or her publishers or agents - but to the reader, that writer owes simply and solely... the story. That's all.
Jin Shei Cover from sgreer

What a lovely note to begin a year on...

mjlayman writes:

"The Fairfax County Library is disposing of a lot of classic books, like To Kill a Mockingbird. They're not getting checked out often enough, so they're making room for the books the public likes."

Out with the old, in with the new. If you'll forgive me fro royally mixing both media and metaphor, let's just tear down the Sistine Chapel so we can put up a monument to the Da Vinci Code.

Feh.