Honouring the Reader

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
I've added to my total of Did Not Finish (DNF) books this year. I try to make wise selections at the library, checking reviews of novels that I request, but all the same a few horrors get through. Life is simply too short to persevere in reading crappy books.

Admittedly, I forced myself to complete one truly awful best-selling crime novel, which had somehow sold millions of copies, and vented my spleen :mad: in the Back Room. It still makes me feel ill thinking about it.

In the last month, my DNF list has been joined by a 'thriller' set in the world of art theft, which was so slow-moving moss had grown on the pages. A debut crime novel was OK, but burdened with an excess of domestic details—I really don't need to know what flavour of crisps the protagonist's son prefers and why! As for a debut novel written by a publisher, set in the world of publishing, I can't believe that it would ever have been printed, if penned by someone without his contacts, as it was a self-indulgent in-joke poking fun at rivals and clients he'd known.

For brilliant writing, I was sad to leave the world of Tudor London, as imagined by C. J. Sansom in Lamentation, the sixth in his series about Matthew Shardlake, a hunchback lawyer who treads a careful path through the machinations of the royal court. It was a book that I dreaded finishing, as I knew it would be hard to find writing of comparable quality. Thankfully, I've been blessed by Dominic Smith's The Last Painting of Sara De Vos, and Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, which are both captivating.

I've been wondering why some novels have this charm, and why others are tiresome company. I think it's to do with treating the reader with respect, by assuming that they have a brain that's capable of imagining things while the author takes them on a journey. The writer themselves disappears, as the reader enters the lives of the characters in the story. Certainly, an author's voice is detectable, in how they describe what's happening—letting their personality show, without taking a dogmatic stance that feels like they're lecturing the reader.

G. K. Chesterton summed up this potential failure well:

A good novel tells us the truth about its hero, but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.

With poorly-written novels that bore or anger me, it feels like the author has proudly devised a situation that's unlikely to happen, but they don't know how to describe it—they want you to excuse their failings and not jump ship—and do the hard work for them, would you? Finely-written stories illuminate truths about living, perhaps making you think of things in a different way; they don't talk down to you. I'm reminded of something 20th-century Serbian poet Charles Simic said:

Inside my empty bottle I was constructing a lighthouse, while all of the others were making ships.

A favourite book, one you'd be happy to re-read, provides light and warmth that guide and comfort you in some way, which may be pacifying or even thrilling. As an example of this, I've re-read Geoffrey Household's Rogue Male many times, as it's both exciting and reassuring to me, in how one man can stand up to oppression by a despot and his regime.

In my own crime writing, I aim to create an entertaining and thought-provoking tale, that's within the realms of possibility and that is factually accurate. I want my readers to bond with the recurring characters, so show their doubts as well as their strengths. It's important to remember, that fictional heroes are friends to book lovers. Getting the grammar, punctuation and spelling correct shows respect to the reader and to yourself, and should be the bedrock of creating a story.

If I honour the reader, they may buy my book—I can only hope—but, even if they don't, at least I've honoured the writing process and not let myself down.

How do you honour your readers?

How do you honour your readers?

I don't have any. But I'll repeat something someone said to me:

The reader is always right.

I should add that this person went on to say that while the reader is always right, they're not always right about how to fix something.

If you take your work to a critique or writing group, and my guess is you don't, you'll hear things about your writing that you like or don't like. Are they right? Sometimes someone won't like a part very much and it isn't changing that passage which would fix what they don't "like" but it's another part which would resolve the issue. It's your job to please the reader, not the other way around.

The same goes for critics, reviewers, publishers, and agents and others we might perceive as having power over our writing. They can't be "wrong". But sometimes all they're "right" about is that thinking about it took them out of the story, drew their focus.

And sometimes when they find what's wrong with something people can be total jerks about it. But they're not wrong about the thing they found, they're wrong to be jerks about it.

So, it's my opinion that if you want to respect your reader, you give your writing to as many readers as you can and be willing to hear what they have to say before self-publishing or publishing--with beta readers, critique groups, reviewers and willing strangers on the street. Or, in the writing groups too I suppose.

A good novel tells us the truth about its hero, but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.

It tells us something but not necessarily the truth. Sometimes all it tells us is that we don't think they can write.

Which tells us something about ourselves too. Not necessarily something bad.

All day long. I can do this all day long.
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How do you honour your readers?

By giving them an interesting and fulfilling read, I guess. If they read it and at the end put it down and say to themselves "That was a good book. I wonder if he/she has written anything else?" then it's job done.
How that is achieved can and often does depend on the author. But as you say correct grammar, punctuation and spelling are an essential. For me as a reader, nothing puts me off a book more quickly than finding that it hasn't even been properly proof read. I am amazed that such glaring errors, on the first page even, can get through to print. And I'm not talking about self-published works here but stuff from supposed publishers.
Once the writing is technically correct, the next thing to honour the reader with is to give them a compelling story that they can follow. One that has believable characters and situations. By believable I mean believable within the world that the writer has created within the book. Fantasy and ghost stories and the like are not in themselves believable, obviously, but within the realm of the narrative characters and events must follow the story's rules.
The last way of honouring the reader is to give them a feeling of satisfaction when they finish. Don't leave them thinking at the end of the book "Well I can't understand why that happened." Where possible, major loose ends should be tidied up, unless of course a sequel is planned which will address the loose ends.

if you want to respect your reader, you give your writing to as many readers as you can and be willing to hear what they have to say
I can't agree more. Get as many opinions from other people as possible and listen to what they say.
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