An Act of Fealty to the Readers

Kneel Before Zod
Kneel Before Zod

That’s what Laura Lippmann, author of “When She Was Good,” “I’d Know You Anywhere,” and many more excellent novels with titles I’m jealous I didn’t think of first calls Bouchercon, mystery and crime fiction convention held this year in Cleveland. It’s been around for some time and travels from city to city. When I went to my first con last year, I thought it was about the writers. I wanted to meet them and thank them for writing stories I felt so close to, that shaped my view of the world from an early age, that taught me to look for the puzzle in everyday interactions and the motive behind human cruelty.

And I had a great time. I met a lot of friends who wrote, read, edited, anthologized, published, booksold, agented and copywrote, but what Ms. Lippmann says is correct. There is nothing without the reader. Now, I respect writers of course, and everyone else who puts in hard work getting stories out, but the reader is the reason for all that hard work. And as a writer, or any other link in the chain, you forget that at your peril.

I met a lot of readers there. As a science fiction fan, I went to Creation Cons in New York as a teen and I remember the passion required to travel to a gathering of your heroes and walk up that line figuring out what the hell you want to say so you don’t sound like a stalker. And that passion drives word of mouth, the energy that any book lives on. Respect it. Honor it. Don’t sneer at it like it’s the dumb boss in the office everyone works around. I made some writers roll their eyes when I said that if my fans come carrying 50 Shades of Whatever It is This Week along with my book, I’m not going to sneer and say why the hell you reading that?

I hated hearing booksellers and nascent writers rage about the idiocy of publishing fan fiction. A sharp friend of mine compared it to religion, and she hit the mark. If one day there is fan fiction, slash fiction, or any other passionate crazy expression of love of my own work, I will grin and thank those ever-loving fans for choosing to put their energy into it. If you think that’s pathetic, go to Skywalker Ranch and guffaw at the man who built an empire on it. Nothing will make 50 Shades of Gray a good book. But good writers can learn from it. I know at least three people I respect, who read good and great books, who have read that trilogy. They finished it. And they told me the writing was awful, but they wanted to know how it ended. That’s the underpinning of good writing, the part we don’t always talk about. The lizard brain of fiction. Mrs. James tapped into that. Maybe she can’t write two sentences without mentioning an inner goddess or making her characters murmur instead of SAYING anything, but she got that part right. And the readers liked it.

So if you like cat and craft cozies, or brutal extreme horror, I’m not here to judge you. You’re a reader. I’ve yet to write a cozy, but I love some of them- Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr series, Barbara Block’s old pet store detective tales. I read a lot of Miss Marple books when I was a kid. It’s not my thing now, but I get the appeal. And I’m not here to mock it. The act of reading is a sacrifice of the time we have on this earth. It is paying attention to what a total stranger has to say. It is not something given away freely or easily.

Writers should respect that.

Is that kissing ass? You know my feelings on that. I’m not a bullshitter and I don’t kiss ass. If someone asked me what I thought about 50 Shades, or a Dan Brown book, I’ll tell them. Not for me. But I’d sure as hell ask what made them finish the book. And not so I could pander and change the heart of my work to increase sales, but to understand it. And if they already read my work, I wouldn’t feel dirty. 50 Shades readers also love Jeffrey Eugenides. They love John Irving. They love Robert MacCammon. I know this because the three readers I mentioned above recommended those writers to me. So don’t tell me they’re stupid or have terrible taste. Something else is at work here, even if it is as simple as sex appeal.

So zip your lip before you slam a reader. One day they may be yours. A friend of mine overheard a thriller author blast hardboiled stories about alcoholics and beat down unlikely heroes, and I know I’ll never read that guy’s work now. Because I am a reader first, and this pompous fellow insulted my taste, and the fans of an entire subgenre. Instead of reaching across the aisle, he hawked a loogie. He did not come to Bouchercon to pay fealty to readers, but to wallow in our appreciation.

It’s an easy mistake to make. We know writers run on caffeine and compliments. But respect the reader. It’s a good habit, and if you respect them in your writing especially, they’ll fuel you for a lifetime.

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