Sunday, October 28, 2018

The Unwritten Pact between a Writer and a Reader

Most books of fiction or poetry involve an unwritten pact between the writer and the reader. That pact takes the form of an understanding that the reader develops based on the tone and topic of the book; the title and early chapters or poems; and the cover, genre, and publicity for the book. Based on all those, the reader develops certain expectations.

For example, the tone of a book could seem romantic, such as a book that has the word “love” in its title: Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair by Pablo Neruda, for instance. Or, if a book is classified as a mystery, such as Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, we are prepared for a certain amount of blood, since there will probably be a violent murder. As likely as not, more than one.

Readers often choose a book because they are in the mood for a romance, or a thriller, a mystery, or a historical novel, so if the author varies greatly from the initial expectations, the reader can feel cheated, bored, shocked, or betrayed. Readers have their threshold for how much they want of violence, sex, philosophy, romance, etc. One of the surest ways for a writer to lose a reader before the end of a book is to violate the unwritten pact that s/he has made with the reader.

When I was listening to the audiobook of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I was prepared for there to be some gore. What’s a mystery without a body? But the type of sadistic rape/murders in this book took me by surprise. I thought this was going to be more of an English-style mystery with quirky characters and a detective with a loveably eccentric personality who turns out to be uniquely suited to solve the crime. But the farther I got into the plot, the more I realized this book was about a team of sadistic rapist-murderers who commit the most violent and sick acts, not once, not twice, but over and over. I did something I never do when I’m reading a book—I gave up only twenty pages from the end, because I couldn’t stomach one more drop of blood. Essentially I felt betrayed by the author. I had been lured into a world that seemed relatively in balance except for a random crime, but that world turned out to include a cascade of horrible and almost unstoppable atrocities.

It may be an author’s Weltanschauung that the world is endlessly violent and cruel, and who am I to second-guess anyone’s worldview? But it did feel to me as if the author of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo had violated a pact with me as a reader. Yes, the author has an obligation to make a statement, and also to surprise the reader. But in my opinion that surprise cannot go so far that the reader feels cheated out of the type of experience they were led to believe the book would provide. I think we as authors have to be sensitive to a reader’s expectations, not to coddle the reader, but we do have to deliver what we promised.

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

Other recent posts about writing topics: 

How to Get Published
Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

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