Weekly Musing: Reader Responsibility

I view reading as a two-way street between author and reader. A writer’s first job is to be a storyteller and the primary function of a storyteller is to come up with a tale which a reader will enjoy. I’m may be a writer, but I was first a reader and in many ways I still consider myself a reader before a writer. As a writer I understand what the expectations are of me. These are things drilled into us as we learn and practice the craft. But what is not talked about enough is the responsibilities a reader must carry with them. After all a writer cannot and should not be spoon feeding readers everything. Below I’ve listed some of the expectations we as readers are responsible for.

Unfamiliar Words: Language is great. Authors like words. Readers like words. It’s why we do what we do. It’s up to the reader to look up words they are unfamiliar with. Yet I’ve seen advice over the years discouraging writers from using words most people aren’t familiar with. This is crazy to me. Growing up my teachers encouraged us to use the dictionary to look up words as well as teaching us how to glean the word’s meaning from its usage in a sentence. This is something that doesn’t stop once we leave school. Technology has made it easier to look up a word either by using your eReader’s built in dictionary or via an app on your phone.

It’s not the job of the author to dumb down the language because some of the readers may not know the meaning of a word. The author doesn’t know your reading level or your level of word mastery. Authors use the words which make the most sense for the story and the character. Inversely the author shouldn’t fill his or her story with convoluted, archaic words just because they know them.

Cultural and Technological References: This is something I see brought up in my writers group during critiques and is one thing that puzzles me. I have heard someone tell a writer to leave out references to a specific movie, song, actor, some other cultural reference. Even references to new technology are discouraged. Doesn’t matter if such things are appropriate to the story. The train of thought is these kinds of references will “date” the piece.

This makes zero sense. Should F. Scott Fitzgerald have held back on capturing the essence of the Jazz Age in The Great Gatsby just because in a few decades those references would be lost on most readers? No, of course not. As a reader it is my job to understand the story’s world. If that means I don’t know what a clothes iron from the 1930s looks like I can either roll passed it or stop to look it up. Because it’s not as if information on everything humanely possible is at my fingertips. Like looking up a word, if I have to stop what I’m reading to do a little bit of research, that’s fine. Especially if it’s something which will help me better understand the story. If you can’t be bothered to do some research, that’s fine, but don’t go blaming the author for putting in something you don’t understand.

Character Likeability: This one is subjective and purely up to the reader’s interpretation of the character. As human beings we all bring with us prejudices to what we read. It’s natural to automatically dismiss certain kinds of characters regardless of how the author has presented them on the page. For example, I can’t stand girly, princess type characters so if I encounter one in a story I’m probably going to find her automatically unlikeable. On the flip side I tend to automatically like morally gray characters.

Since character likeability is subjective, it’s up to the author to do justice to the characters and keep them as true to whom they are as possible. It’s fascinating discussing a book and tracking how the same character’s actions can be interpreted so differently. As a writer I always find it curious how feedback from my critique group or my spouse about a character can be different from how I see the character.

Endings: Endings are tricky to write, probably the trickiest part of the whole process, and as a reader tricky to accept. But I have noticed complaints by readers who downgrade a book simply because the ending wasn’t happy enough. In some genres a happy ending is practically a requirement and I’m not referring to those books. I’m referring to books which establish from the start that this is going to be the kind of story that won’t be all butterflies and unicorns. The characters are gritty, the situation could be dire if the right decisions aren’t made, lives will be most likely lost. The reader is onboard with all of this until the ending where magically they switch attitudes and want a happy ending. Huh?

I find it problematic many readers scream about how if they were the author they would have ended things differently and why didn’t the author see that? Because the author isn’t you. Because the ending they came up with is what they saw in their mind. Or what the editor or publishing company wanted. It’s fine as a reader to dislike an ending, but when you get upset at the author for not ending things how you wanted it to end then that are more on you. Personally very few of the books I’ve read I thought ended things properly and in my own work I know how much I still struggle with ending a story in an appropriate way.

Separating an Author From Their Work: When I’m reading I don’t personally associate the book with the author. What an author writes is not a reflection of who they are as a person. If I did then I would think Stephen King should have been locked up years ago. Or I would think every single romance writer out there as having a super libido or is using his or her stories as wish fulfillment.

Yet it’s far too easy to accuse an author of being racist or misogynist if too many of the minority or female characters have bad things happen to them. It’s too easy to think if an author’s works explore the dark side of humanity that they themselves personally view humanity as doomed. Or that author must believe in vampires and zombies if all his or her works feature those creatures. Um, no. Unless the author has stated otherwise, this more than likely is not the case, yet some readers see it this way. Apparently some don’t realize it’s up to you, the reader, to be able to separate fact from fiction.

Something else I’ve also seen are readers telling authors to be neutral in their opinions so as to not lose readers. Authors are human beings with their own views on life. Just because those views don’t line up with every potential reader doesn’t mean the author should change or shut up. If you are willing to stop reading an author because of their personal views, that’s on you. Personally I stop reading an author because I don’t like the work.

 

As a reader it is our job to work with the author. We read and interpret the story the best we know how to just as the author worked hard to write the best story they know how. There is a give and take whenever we choose to read. It’s incorrect for the author to assume every reader will completely understand the story just as it is incorrect for the reader to assume the author will spoon feed us. Readers need to be able to think on their own and connect the dots based on what the author has given us. It’s time to realize this as our main responsibility and work harder when we read.

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