“The New York Times arrives on your doorstep and shouts at you, ‘Are you a decent person? Are you a good citizen? Are you smart? Then you will read me.’ The Post has no such presuppositions.”
– Tucker Carlson, on the difference between the New York Times and New York Post
There aren’t that many different things you can point to and say, “An author needs to do this.” Writing is more an art than a science, so there’s definitely a lot more wiggle room for interpretation than in many other professions. Of course, obligations goes beyond getting training and studying the field. Qualifications is separate from obligations.
When I started writing these posts, I thought I could cover all the conceivable obligations of an author in one sitting. As it turns out, it took four. First, the author and the audience. Then, the author and the story. The first two were tied together with enrichment. The last… well, we’ll get to that in a second.
For the author, respect is assuming that the audience can read your story and be enriched by it.
Okay, so this sounds incredibly simplistic. And it is. It’s entirely possible that you will never have any difficulty fulfilling this obligation, particularly as a fiction author. For those of us who are on the bottom of the stack, and I’m guessing that’s most of you although if Stephen King is reading this I’d certainly love to hear from him, assuming that you need to do everything you can to get your reader’s attention and sell them on reading your story seems like a natural thing. After all, when you’re an unknown you can’t expect total strangers to invest in your book sight unseen. But in the publishing industry there is sometimes a subtle but strong undercurrent of condescension or outright superiority in tone and content.
The quote at the top of this post speaks to this attitude. On the one hand, The New York Times is a very old, well established newspaper. On the other hand, the fact that something is well established does not, in and of itself give it a stance of moral superiority. Neither does the fact that the editors are graduates of Ivy League colleges or the fact that they are trained journalists who are routinely given access to the highest levels of power in the nation and sometimes in the world. No matter how lofty your pedigree or connections, no matter how you think your studies and training have equipped you to observe and write, none of these things make your audience obligated to read what you have written. Your skill in turning a phrase or affecting people’s emotions does not make your work a necessary part of a healthy lifestyle. In short, you must earn the attention of your readership, you cannot demand it or worse, feel you are entitled to it.
Respect is showing your audience that you are approaching them as equals, as people who are able to read and understand what you have written, who don’t need their hands held through every point of the story or need to be beaten over the head to find the “correct” interpretation of characters or events. This doesn’t mean you throw things at your audience that you know they can’t deal with. No one expects eight year-olds to understand calculus, but a good mathematician doesn’t hold that against them. Likewise, you must accept your audience for what they are and speak to them where they are. That is respect.
Respect is also accepting that not every story is for every audience. This is a particularly egregious fault of the so-called ‘literary’ author, who feel that their stories must be written and read or something is fundamentally missing from society. The burden is on you, as an author, to write stories that speak to your audience where they are. It’s okay to have a clear cut idea of what you want your story to be about or what point you want it to make when you sit down to write it. That, after all, is the foundation of enrichment (more on that in a second), but if you’re not taking the steps to understand your audience and making it relevant to them you’re not showing respect.
Finally, while you can offer your audience anything you want as enrichment, you can show them any kind of work from the depressing but eye-opening 1984 to the exciting and mind sharpening adventures of Sherlock Holmes, but whether the audience takes away what you give them or not is up to them. You have to leave the decision of whether your story was worth their time in their hands – after all, you wouldn’t want a chef telling you how much you enjoyed your meal, would you? The work of an author is much the same. It may be a good and vital part of a reader’s life, but they’re also entitled to decide what they make of it. Authors have to respect that.
In short, you audience is there to receive solid, entertaining and meaningful stories from you. Your job is to write the best story you can and let them decide if it meets those criteria. When they know that you’ve done that, then that is respect.