According to OSC, they owe their readers faith, hope, and clarity.
In other words, the answers to the following questions: "oh, yeah?" (faith), "so what?" (hope), and "huh?" (clarity).
In other, other words, they owe their readers something they can believe (or at least something they can read and exercise willing suspension of disbelief), something they can care about (or that at least has meaning), and something that makes sense.
I've always thought writers owed their readers timely releases within their series. If they're going to start one, they owe it to their readers to finish it. There are thousands of would-be writers out there willing to write day and night like moles. Success should come with the responsibility to remain productive.
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I like that, Kathleen. It's a nice, concise way of putting it. I haven't read his essays and Uncle Orson letters in a while, and I must have missed that one.
Although I have to add I think it depends on what you're writing for. If you're just writing for personal enjoyment, I wouldn't worry too much about the answer to that question. Although I do want to write for readers, I think sometimes I get too caught up in their expectations and forget (or ignore) the fact that you can't please everyone. :/
What is owed readers is what is promised readers. When you start a story, the first part sets up an expectation. They expect you to resolve (or at least address) the problems you've created, for example. They also expect you to be honest with them outside of the plot itself. If you lead your reader to think she's reading a fantasy novel but it turns out to be a cheap polemic on the evils of fantasy novels, you might be going astray of your contract. (Yes, I'm still on about that).
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I think a writer owes it to the reader that his stories be self-contained---no endless series where you have to read all that went before to understand what's going on---and, even then, it's incomplete till the next installment. And who knows whether you'll be there for it, or even if it'll be there at all?
(By the way, it's bad in professionally published stuff...but, in my foray into Internet Fan Fiction, I found it's worse there. You wouldn't believe how many people started something interesting and never got around to finishing it.)
I think trying to figure out what writers owe their readers is perhaps a backward way to approach it, because all readers are different and want different things. Even if you apply something like OSC's three part question thingy, the answers to or fulfillments of those things are going to be different for each person. That's why we have umpteen gajillion kinds of stories and publications.
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I agree with Genevive. When you get down to brass tacks, your reader is looking for a really good story. You can call it what you like: Entertaining, thought provoking, thrilling, etc. but when they put it down after breathlessly turning the last page what we, as writers, want them to say is: "Wow. That was a good story."
And one readers good story is another person's bore-fest or nightmare which is why I think in the end, most of us end up writing the stories we want to hear and tell, then finding the other readers that like it, rather than the other way around.
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I'm reading a book about a mathematician (John von Neumann) and it is half-biographical and half about game theory. The first 40% of the book was great and I sped through it. Then it got bogged down with lazy writing and large blocks of text that the author quoted.
The writer must fulfill his promise to the reader as given in the premise and the beginning of the book. This one is treading water.
I would go with fulfilling his promise to the readers. Like Wordcaster I have read many books that started out with a great story and then half way (if I am lucky) the writing drops off. I almost feel like some authors write just enough of a good story to get you to walk to the cash register.
"I've always thought writers owed their readers timely releases within their series. If they're going to start one, they owe it to their readers to finish it. There are thousands of would-be writers out there willing to write day and night like moles. Success should come with the responsibility to remain productive."
I'm sorry, Nate, but I can't agree. Frustrating though it may be as a reader to have to wait (indeed, I personally no longer buy books that are part of a series, and don't even pretend to have individual closure, until the series is complete and fully available), there is NO implicit contract between writer and reader that covers as-yet-unwritten/unpublished work. To say "there are thousands of would-be writers out there willing to write day and night like moles" (do moles write?) is all very well, but: a). are there thousands of would-be readers for those writers? b). would those writers continue to "write like moles" once they started selling big and making money? With success come opportunities, and distractions (e.g. Neil Gaiman could make a comfortable living from speaking gigs and never write another word - for many people I am sure that would be tempting).
Writers do not OWE readers anything - nor do readers owe writers anything. Readers have the option to buy a product, as any consumer does. Yes, if a writer wants to be successful, they need to make sure their product is appealing to (and reaches) its market. But an audience of consumers DOES NOT own a producer - it's not true in music, it's not true in art (not these days; under the older system of patronage, effectively "work-for-hire, things were very different), and it's not true in writing.
Frankly, I'm not sure why you're making that argument, tchern. You could respond to any of the things people have said writers "owe" their readers with the fact that nobody's forcing them to do that. And you'd be right: nobody's forcing a writer to put out a good, satisfying book. But the people who never finish a series can be compared to the people who have a great beginning to a book, just enough to get your interest, and then halfway through the book the writing becomes terrible because they don't care.
I realize nobody's putting a gun to a writer's head and telling them to finish a series. But if a writer were to abruptly quit a series midthrough I would never read anything of his again. And if I knew he had that sort of attitude, the "I'm writing just enough to be successful and then my fans can go screw themselves", I'd never start reading him to begin with.
I've seen too many great series turn into bogged down boondoggles that the writer pretty much abandons. It's nothing new and exciting for a writer to give me the finger and take years putting out his next book. You may find it wonderful that writers these days feel they have no obligation to finish what they start, what made them successful in the first place, but I don't.
[This message has been edited by Natej11 (edited August 15, 2011).]
I don't know about not owing anything. Anyone who produces something for others to "consume" owes their "consumers" whatever that product is advertised to be. If not, it's at best a cheat and at worst possibly dangerous.
This applies to used cars and pharmaceuticals as well as to books and food.
No one is required to purchase what you offer, but by contract law, if nothing else, you are required to deliver what you are offering, or you have broken the contract with whomever accepts your offer.
Of course, with writing, usually, if the reader is disappointed with what's written, the reader doesn't demand a refund, he buys no more.
(Actually, that's the way I handle all but the most extreme problems with purchases. I had a Maytag washer that went out of balance and stopped...I kept it for nineteen years, but when I bought a new one, it was a Whirlpool.)
Actually, a reader can go beyond not buying anymore of a certain author's books if they don't like them. They can also blast that author's good name all over the internet, for example.
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I'm not sure this is really all that useful a question in itself. It's just too broad. I think that attacking such a big question invites fuzzy thinking and conflation of issues.
I think even statements like "Authors owe their readers a well-written story?" overshoot the mark. There's plenty of popular books that have a devoted readership and which I don't think by any reasonable canon of taste are "well written". Obviously they offer their readers something, and the readers are satisfied. Furthermore these readers are probably not satisfied with works that adhere to our standards of quality. And before anybody gets on their high horse, I understand this does not justify some kind of relativism, but it is rather presumptuous in my opinion to pass judgment on what people enjoy (I mean *you* Harold Bloom). Value is not a single dimension; some things we enjoy because they are beautifully written; some because they are thought provoking; some because they're just fun to read.
I think you have to keep breaking apart big questions like "what an author owes his readers" into smaller and smaller pieces, until you have something you can examine with some kind kind of reasonable critical process. Then, perhaps, build up the big picture by putting all the answers together again.
For example, starting with "Do authors owe their readers well-written stories?" I think you have to start with an inquiry into all the different ways a story might be well-written. I think what you will find is that there is more than one, because there are different *styles* of stories (duh).
Does every way of writing have the same value to everyone? Do some kinds of stories have greater value for some readers than others?
Do we judge a piece of satire the way we judge a mystery story, a love story, and adventure? Do the authors perform the same service to their readers?
You see how huge this question is? It's not necessarily a bad question, but there is a kind of path of questions you must tread before you have something you can sink your teeth into. In other words the value of big questions is in generating smaller questions. Having the right question is often the biggest step in getting to the right answer.
"You may find it wonderful that writers these days feel they have no obligation to finish what they start, what made them successful in the first place, but I don't."
Nate, I never said I found it "wonderful" so please don't put words in my mouth. As I stated, I no longer buy what I consider "incomplete" books, which should have made it reasonably clear that I don't approve of the practice (I have very genuine doubts that GRRM can finish ASOIF in a remotely satisfactory manner, but that's just my opinion).
I agree with MattLeo. The question is far, far, FAR to broad to have any meaningful answer or even to really be discussed on its own. It has no context.
And I personally don't feel that the whole writers not finishing series within a certain timeframe issue has much, if anything to do with this. It definitely doesn't fit, in my mind, in the broad sense of what "writers" as a group owe their readers, because its something that is a non-issue for many writers who don't write series, or who write series that are not continuous narratives.
quote:I think even statements like "Authors owe their readers a well-written story?" overshoot the mark. There's plenty of popular books that have a devoted readership and which I don't think by any reasonable canon of taste are "well written". Obviously they offer their readers something, and the readers are satisfied. Furthermore these readers are probably not satisfied with works that adhere to our standards of quality. And before anybody gets on their high horse, I understand this does not justify some kind of relativism
Ohh I think it very much does. I think it is all 8,888% relative. All the things and concepts you mention, "well-written", "thought provoking", "beautifully written", "fun to read", these are all totally subjective, relative concepts, that as you say will vary insanely from one person to the next.
Now, if an author starts a continuous-narrative series and then just arbitrarily decides to abandon it, I'd say that is rather bad form and inconsiderate, although no official or legal obligation exists between writer and readers. However, I know that in the case of the Dark Tower for instance, Stephen King said several times that those stories were often difficult for him to "find his way into." The sporadic nature of their writing wasn't indifference or caprice on the writers part and in such cases may well be just as frustrating for the writer.
Likewise, I've found myself rather irritated a few times when storytellers such as Ursula K. LeGuin and George Lucas, who have created vast and much-loved story worlds come back years later and create stories that largely "retcon" that story-world or present characters in ways that seem strongly out of character for their previous appearances or play havoc with established time-lines. I feel that this, to some extent, breaches a sort of creative contract or assumption, however I can't really say I feel that maintaining the integrity of these things is something that is "owed" in an absolute sense, although it's something I can't imagine not giving freely as a storyteller myself.
This is one of the over-arching BIG questions in a literature textbook that I'm supposed to use. I had my thoughts, but I wanted to see what other writers in the trenches would say. Good, good, good stuff here!
I don't know how far one can stretch "well-written"...I was reading a reprinted issue of Planet Stories the other day---yeah, somebody's reprinting old SF magazines, the ones with contents in public domain---and there was this lead story by Ray Cummings which was, well, not well-written. Out and out bad. (It wasn't that it was sixty-some years old---the other stories in the issue were just fine.)
I think some writers are in such a hurry to get something out there, that they don't take the time to make it good. This applies to professionals as well as wanna-bes. (Me? I've gotten so nitpickety that I'm thinking I'm taking too long to finish things...)