Today is April first, April Fool’s Day, and so I wanted to take a little time today to discuss the contract between the storyteller and the audience, because I believe there is one and I believe that violating it ranges from “depressing” to “cruel”.
While I don’t necessarily actively apply these expectations to other writers, because we each have our own ways of interacting with our readers, I have a strong belief that when I sit down to tell a story — or to write an essay — I am creating an implicit contract with my readership. That contract requires me to provide my best possible work, to be as clear and as challenging as I can, to put forth my thoughts and opinions in an organized and supported fashion and to uphold the beliefs they represent in action, and to finish the damn story.
The last one is important, and I think it’s where I diverge from a lot of writers. I believe that if you start a story for your audience, you have an obligation to finish it. A lot of people disagree; they believe they own the story and have the right to do whatever they like with it, and that readers who have an expectation of product from them are acting with an entitlement they haven’t earned. But I think that implies a certain amount of failure to respect one’s readers, and respect for the audience is important to me. While I don’t expect writers to bend to the whims of their audience, I like writers less when they react in anger to their audience asking for them to finish the story. One of the (admittedly many) reasons I don’t read George R. R. Martin’s work is that he is ostentatiously, unnecessarily aggressive about this issue, and I find it both attention-seeking and disrespectful.
Respect for one’s readers is why I also frequently get angry on April Fool’s Day, because people do it wrong.
There is a fine line between playing a prank on someone and being a dickhead, and the line falls right where you decide how much you respect the other person and how much you just want to exert your power over them. I have, on occasion, played April Fool’s pranks on my readership, but I have always made sure that they were made aware they were being pranked. When you write a joke chapter to a fanfic, or you post a fake “found page” from an as-yet unpublished book, the decent thing to do is to notify people at the end — you post a “gotcha!” so that people know they’re being pranked, so that they have the opportunity to laugh at what’s going on without feeling used or humiliated. If you don’t tell people you’re pranking them, if you leave them to embarrass themselves by reacting to it, that’s cruel. It’s not okay, and it’s not funny. It’s just a demonstration of power, a symbolic mounting meant to tell someone else that they are less than you because they fell for a trick. They’re not sharing in the joke, then. They’re just the butt of it.
And it also tells them that you are not to be trusted. Especially for people with a long experience of being bullied, that kind of behavior immediately lands you on the list of people who are willing to disrespect others for a cheap laugh. I don’t care for authors who don’t respect their readers, but I actively avoid authors who think their readers are a joke. Writing for oneself is a fine and noble goal, and sometimes a compulsion, but if you make it available for public consumption, you should respect the people who choose to spend their time reading your work. If you can’t respect them, you should ignore them; it’s not like professional writers can’t encircle themselves in layers of protection from the horrible, terrible, tedious people who are responsible for their livelihood.
I’ve broken this contract before, absolutely. I’ve failed to complete stories I’ve started, and I still feel a twinge of pain over it. Sometimes you need to move on, but that doesn’t make the contract any less valid. And I try never to break it intentionally, if I can.
So remember that it’s April Fool’s, and show a little skepticism today — and view with particular skepticism anyone who uses today as an excuse to be a dickhead.