Sunday, 19 August 2012

Demanding Readers

I am often told that we live in a consumer-driven society and that customer power is stronger than ever.  I would contest this by pointing to how often companies now feel no obligation to even to respond to queries or complaints and state that your questions are 'inappropriate' or clash with data protection, or some other pseudo-legal excuse that they make up to not bother to address your legitimate concerns.  Complain about anything at an airport and you are likely to be threatened with anti-terrorist legislation.  If you do not believe me, simply try it.  There are articles enough online, one from 'The Guardian' that I remember featured a pregnant woman trying to get a trolley at an airport and being treated as if she was a threat to national security.

I would agree that customers do feel empowered these days.  Tutored by 'reality' programmes showing us how to get angry to get attention, a point I know I have made before, we have all been encouraged to be indignant and take very personal offence at even minor irregularities.  Given the corporate attitudes this almost creates an unstoppable force crashing against an immovable object, which does nothing for the health of the population, let alone good business.

Now, most of us are not large corporations, but increasingly we are businesses.  Selling on eBay, advertising a room to rent, even like me, putting up e-books for people to buy, we have become a business.  Yet, we are one without much power.  These days you cannot even put negative comments up about troublesome buyers and even saying that you had sent a replacement for something they did not receive, can lead to you being insulted with very colourful language.  The customer is not only right, even when getting a free replacment for something they say they have not received, but that their online image has to be pristine.  This is one reason why I sell nothing on auction sites, but of course, now I am selling e-books and that opens me up to such treatment.

When people buy books these days, they seem to expect that the book will be free or of a nominal fee.  The 99c book appears to be the accepted norm and anything above that, no matter how long it might be or how well written, is deemed to be too expensive.  No wonder bookshops where these days in the UK it is rare to see anything below £8.99 (€10.69; US$13.93) are struggling.  The major problem, however, is that the reader expects the book to be tailored to their specific tastes.  I write in British English and for most readers that is not a big issue.   This is a topic which I have discussed with other writers and I feature some of the examples they have told me about here. 

The problems for British (and some Commonwealth writers, depending on the brand of English they use) do come from US readers, not because we have spelt 'color' as 'colour', but because of reference to British society and business.  I have now learnt that apparently in the USA 'liaison' is a job title, whereas in Britain it is an activity; in the USA a manager cannot be a liaison, but in the UK, a manager often carries out liaison.  I have learnt that readers will count how many paragraphs start with the name of a character even when they are alone in the story at that stage.  Too many mentions mean the book is not worth reading.  Personally I am told I 'over write' and have readers sending me edited versions of my work, to show me how much better it could be, whilst reducing clarity.  People do not like me referring to characters by their surnames, though that is a traditional convention in detective novels.

One factor which I know has applied to movies as far back as 'Pretty in Pink' (1986), readers/viewers cannot tolerate any unresolved issues for the characters.  Famously, the end of that movie was re-shot so that a secondary character, 'Duckie' played by John Cryer ends up with a girlfriend after the heroine with whom he has been friends with for years, goes with another boy.  It appears that readers expect the same treatment.  I get emails asking me about the fate of minor characters and I feel as if I should have a coda like one of the sequences running up over the credits in movies, 'X went on to be ...', the one which comes most to mind is 'Three Kings' (1999) but I am sure there are tens more that I could quote.  The other thing these days, is that you should never leave a cliff hanger or an unresolved issue, even if you are writing a triology or a longer sequence.  It appears that readers demand that even those epic fantasy novels part of a 14-part sequence be self-contained in each novel.  I have people really upset that I have not tied down every single element before the end of a particular novel.  There is no sense of an arc being permitted.  Not only do such constraints inhibit the writing process, but I feel they are patronising to the reader, suggesting that they have no imagination of their own.

The woman in my house, having enjoyed the 'True Blood' television series has begun reading the novels on which the series is (loosely) based.  To some degree it suggests that they are produced for very different audiences.  I know HBO which produces the series is seen as 'high quality' and a serious production company.  The novels reflect their central character, Sookie Stackhouse, a waitress from a backwater village in Louisiana, not only in what happens to her, but how the text is written.  I accept that this may appeal to readers whose level of literacy is not high, but it seems very much at odds with what you see on the screen.  In addition, the drivers for the stories are different.  In the books, Lafayette, the homosexual diner chef is murdered at the end of the first book; in the television series he is one of the most popular characters and continues to have lots of adventures, certainly in the first four series so far shown in the UK.  Each series and many episodes end with a cliff hanger and what Sookie is (she can read people's minds) and the intentions of the vampires and werewolves she encounters, remain elusive.  Why is it that people will tolerate this in a television series and yet not in a book?  Maybe it reflects the different ways in which we consume these different media; perhaps the audiences are different.  I certainly feel that people will tolerate more left unanswered in a series which they expect will continue (though unfortunately many series in the USA are cut short abruptly, simply in the vampire field look at 'Moonlight' and 'Blade') whereas they tend not to expect that in a movie.  Even in the 'Twilight' and 'Harry Potter' franchises, bar the last two movies, there has always been resolution at the end of each individual movie.

This fact of doing everything for the reader is an interesting one.  I suppose in a world where we primarily consume fast food or the home equivalent of it, we do not expect to have to get out the knife and fork or even chew, we just need to consume, in fiction as in food.  I guess this is why 28-page e-books for 99c are the most popular on Amazon.  Yet, on the other hand we have a vast quantity of fan fiction, i.e. stories written by members of the public which continue or extend movies, novels and series, which explore minor characters or put the major ones into very different circumstances.  Apparently, has over 150,000 stories and out of one of these came the best-selling e-book, 'Fifty Shades of Grey' which began life as a fan fiction story featuring characters from the 'Twilight' movies/novels.  An element of these stories is that sometimes, though not always, they involve sexual aspects that would not be acceptable in the original.  Given the emphasis on 'Twilight' on chastity and marriage, it is pretty ironic that a novel about sexual domination should have been spawned by it.

These days if a reader feels my novel has turned out 'wrong' or has too much unresolved I suggest they write their own version and I have some friends who are writers who do the same.  I must say that this is rarely taken up.  I suppose as yet, we do not have the standing of Stephanie Meyer or Charlaine Harris that people would feel that creating fan fiction was appropriate.  I guess fan fiction is like doing an impersonation or a spoof, others need to know the original sufficiently well to see what you have been doing.  Obscurity of my books closes off that for people.  Yet it does not douse their indignation that I did not get into their heads and saw how the story 'must' be and I have not provided a detailed biography of every single character who appears or is mentioned.  I get that too, even characters who do not 'appear' in the story but are referred to, such as relatives or employers, people want to know about them.  I guess, ultimately you end up with readers insisting that every novel comes with an accompanying volume like the 'The Dune Encyclopedia' (1984) which details every single scrap of everything that appears in the 'Dune' novels of Frank Herbert almost as if they were real.

I wonder how to respond to readers who are increasingly demanding.  I guess I do not need the money desperately enough to simply write to address what they want.  I have even found it hard writing stuff for an American publisher because it soon became apparent simply how many terms and how much grammar is different to British English.  If I missed even a single word such as putting 'film' instead of 'movie' or leaving in 'cinema' rather than 'picture house' it jarred and made the book seem invalid.  Maybe we are more tolerant in Britain; reading things I can adapt to US, Australian and even Indian English.  However, I do have a British friend who now will not read anything written by an American as he finds the differences too extreme that it does not permit him to enjoy the novel.  Maybe rather than having a 'global' language, local differences are becoming greater and less tolerable for readers. 

It is also time fixed.  I have found that readers expect historical novels to feature people speaking and behaving in a way that they would nowadays.  People often believe spoke in a more mannered way and did not know the swear words of the present world, for them I suggest reading the works of Chaucer produced in the 15th century in which 'shiten' , i.e. 'covered in shit' features in the opening passages and used to describe what it does today, though in 500 years it has evolved into 'shitty', I guess.  Certainly in movies, it is painful to me to see people in previous centuries behaving as if they have just walked in from a street in California in the 21st century, which of course they have, but theatre and movies are supposed to be about suspending disbelief rather than not even trying.   It is ironic that now we are able to conjure up accurate representations of medieval cities, the actors often lack the skills or direction to produce such an engaging portrayal as the famous scene in the television series 'The Six Wives of Henry VIII' (1970) in which a scene in a studio feels as if it is outside simply through the use of a small branch of blossom and the skill of the acting. 

I would encourage readers to be more adventurous, to take out the mental knife-and-fork even the chopsticks and engage with books which are not necessarily hard to read but which need some 'chewing', which do not treat you as if you are in Year 3 (3rd grade for American readers) of school.  Bear in mind, many of the Harry Potter books were written for a pre-pubescent audience, and whilst flawed, do challenge the reader much more than what so many readers demand from me and other writers publishing online.  Finally I would say, if you are dissatisfied with a book but like its concept and its characters, do what I used to do and what tens of thousands of people do and write your own version.  After all you might end as successful as EL James, fastest selling e-book author ever with work coming out of fan fiction.


ColKillgore said...

You called it when you said they don't have an imagination at all, especially the average american. I am from the ole'US of A and most people I know cannot watch a show or movie that leaves something unresolved or that makes you have to interpret or infer what happens next. I work with the lowest common denominator of people. Half of the department I work in never finished High School and when I started reading a book at lunch they wanted to know why I was reading a book that didn't have pictures in it. I wish I could say this is a rare situation in america but it is not. American media has spoon fed the populace it entertainment so long that if anything breaks from the formula it is called boring or too hard to understand.
You can't satisfy everyone and some one will always have a complaint or a suggestion on how they could do it better. Ask them what have they written that is better than what you have? Most will have nothing to show. If they do have something, read it and make your own call.


Rooksmoor said...

Col, I was not particularly taking a shot at Americans, it is just that given the power of Hollywood and what attention it pays to its domestic audience and what they will accept, though I read that is declining, the average American cinema-goer (picture house-goer or whatever) has more clout than their British equivalent. Certainly over here there is much the same attitude. It is probably universal, though I certainly see a difference when I watch US remakes of French or Japanese movies to how the story progresses and ends; 'Spoorloos' (1998) and 'The Vanishing' (1993) are a real classic for this, a Dutch movie in this case.

Yes, the woman who lives in my house is a novelist who has published print books. However, when she mentioned this to another mother whose child attends the same school as he son, the other mother simply stepped away as if my woman had spat at her. The UK has prided itself for a long time on being offended by intellectualism and it seems now even by literacy. Though it appears we have some way to go until anti-intellectualism becomes a manifesto policy as it was with some recent US candidates. Whose book were they reading for policy ideas? Pol Pot's?