Michille: Contract with Readers

Go Set A WatchmanHarper Lee’s new novel, Go Set a Watchman, was released this week. I was so excited about it – pre-ordered it from Amazon and intended to crack the spine the minute I got it. I loved To Kill A Mockingbird so I just knew I would love this one. I love, love, love Atticus Finch’s character. A character in my current WIP is named Finch, after Harper Lee’s character. Then I saw some of the headlines regarding the character of Atticus Finch. A benevolent racist – WHAT??!!??

I have the book sitting on my desk, but now I’m not sure that I want to read it. I plan to wait and talk to people that I know with fiction opinions that I respect after they’ve read it. Family and friends who know what I like have given me good recommendations about books/shows that they think I will like/dislike. I won’t like Game of Thrones (too violent). I would like House of Cards (of course, my husband is going to be an extra on that show so I’ll have to watch those episodes at the very least).

But my point is that in a lot of ways, authors have contracts with their readers that span several areas. If you call a story a romance, then it needs to conform to, at the very least, the big two touted by RWA: central love story, HEA (although there are more expansive definitions that I prefer). If it’s a thriller, or paranormal, or YA, there are elements that the story needs to include as a part of the contract. In addition, there are other contracts, like writing style, or character development, or tone, etc, that sets expectations for the reader. For example, I used to read Lisa Jackson and then she started killing off characters that I liked so I stopped.

Then there is the contract regarding a central character who appears in more than one story. Abrupt changes break the contract. I realize that 20 years has passed since Atticus defended Tom, but I don’t think Atticus Finch was portrayed as a racist in TKAM. Reviews suggest that he changed in the 20 years since Scout and Jem and Dill ran around Maycomb, Alabama. I’m withholding judgement until some people that I know read it and share their opinion.

How strong are your feelings about contract? Are you okay when a writer breaks it? Or do you throw the book against the wall when it happens?

7 thoughts on “Michille: Contract with Readers

  1. I still haven’t heard of one, single person actually reading it and giving us the info of what happened or why. This book is a unique set of circumstances…. it was written a long time ago, in a different time, from a different perspective – this new book could well have been the prolog or epilog of her story, or it could have been the 80,000 words she threw into the bin because she decided it was crap and wasn’t “her story”,. i.e. the story she wanted to tell. I think if this story supposedly predates To Kill a Mockingbird it could be the more interesting story – How did Atticus FInch become the man we know and appreciate – or if if is after – what the heck happened to change things? This could be garbage tossed (think of some of your early stories or “false starts” and someone deciding to publish them a lifetime later- oh the horror). Or it could be the “real” story of Atticus Finch….. how very interesting, possibly making him an even more “real” and interesting character.

    • Those are very good points, Penny, and some of why I’m withholding judgement for now. I’ll let the reviews roll, talk to some friends once they’ve read it, and then i’ll see how I feel about reading it. I just don’t want TKAM ‘ruined’ in my heart/mind.

  2. Given how royally pissed I was when Veronica Roth killed off the protagonist in the third of the Divergent books, I’d say I have a pretty strong attachment to the contract with the reader.

    I’ve been leery of Go Set a Watchman ever since I heard that Harper’s sister (and attorney) had refused to allow it to be published, but as soon as she died, it hit the presses. Particularly since Ms. Lee herself reportedly suffers from dementia. When I asked myself, “who benefits from this publication?” it sure didn’t sound like Harper Lee or her reputation.

    • Yeah, there’s all that, too, about GSAW. I will usually give a favorite author a second book if they go off contract. I just finished a Christina Dodd historical. I usually like her stuff, but there was a scene that maybe, could be interpreted as rape, a la a 1970s or early 1980s romance. They’d already done the horizontal tango a couple of times, but the heroine was royally pissed at the hero and said no. Hero proceeds anyway. I didn’t like that scene, but I’ll read the sequel, just to see if she keeps going in that vein. If she does, I’ll stop reading her stuff.

  3. My husband loves mysteries, police procedurals, puzzle-solving stories. He enjoys the characters’ back story, emotional sub-plots and private lives as long as they feed and support the central conundrum. Problem is that often when a writer has found a degree of critical and/or financial success, maybe after a dozen books or so, they forget that they’re supposed to be writing puzzles and the characters’ emotional crises become the central plot. Cue loud crash and swearing as book hits wall. Like Michille, DH will probably give a favorite author a second chance, but two books of nothing but Yucky Emotional Crap (direct quote) and they’re done.

    • Here, here. Except for the Yucky Emotional Crap. I like that part (of course, the stories I choose have that inherently). So there you go – contract. A friend just posted on Facebook that she read GSAW. I respect her opinion and that of several of the people who responded to her post. I can’t wait to get together with that crew and get their opinion (without spoilers, hopefully).

  4. I think it really depends on the writer. The whole “contract” thing is so terribly vague, and I think there are a lot of writers who refuse to sign up for it. Their only contract with the reader is that they will tell the story they want to enthusiastically tell, and if the reader doesn’t like it, the reader can stop reading and go find something else to do.

    I think the further you go into commercial genre, the more it is possible to say, “hey, there’s a contract with the reader here.”

    Trying to write to the reader is really dangerous for a certain type of writer. 1) The imagined judgment of the as-yet-imaginary reader freezes up the writer. 2) The writer is mistaken about what the reader really wants, and winds up writing something that satisfies neither. 3) The work becomes outer-directed and fuzzy, trying to please everyone rather than inner-directed and focused, trying to please the writer and maybe a few betas.

    But then again, writing only for oneself can lead to circular stories that center upon the writer’s concerns, shorthand that only the writer can decipher, and narrow interests that don’t appeal to a wide audience.

    It’s such a toss-up.

    I think Harper Lee is in no condition to make a contract with anyone, so it’s really buyer-beware at this point. I think, too, that you are really smart to let a few trusted friends be guinea pigs before diving into the book. If GSAW is very unsatisfying, it can spoil not only that book, but TKAM as well. And if TKAM is one of your yearly re-reads, that’s quite a loss.

    I lost my yearly re-reads of Lewis Carroll after some nasty rumors surfaced. So, I can sympathize with what you have to lose. (BTW, I’ve been able to quote Carroll again, after almost a decade, and someday I may be able to read the books again. So, I hope the damage is not permanent. But it certainly has been lasting enough.)

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