What does a writer owe his readers?

I’ve been reading very interesting thread over at Paperback Writer about what an author “owes” a reader.

Paperback Writer wrote:

I don’t know what, if anything, writers actually “owe” readers. I always feel a responsibility to do my best work for the reader; that goes without saying. No one can write something that makes everyone happy. As to what ends up in print, I generally only sell what has (in the publisher’s opinion) the greatest chance of selling well, or what has already sold well in the past.


I’m curious to hear what other writers and readers think. Do you believe the writer owes the reader anything? If so, what, and why?

It all prompted me to leave the following comment there, and it’s such a high-falutin’ bit of pontificating on my part I just had to post it here, too:

(This thread) struck home to me because of once hearing a playwright talk about owing the audience nothing, in an interview that put my hackles up (not just because I saw and disliked the play). I think as an author I do owe my readers something, because books are not a soliloquy in an empty theatre (to continue the theatrical metaphor) but a series of performances for a (hopefully) large audience, albeit an audience that sees the performance one member at a time.

I’m also a professional actor. Live theatre is a much more collaborative art form than writing, but one part of its collaborative nature is very similar to the act of writing: the collaboration with the audience. Especially at the level of theatre I peform in, the audience must invest a great deal of their own imaginations into the play for it to work. They must look at a black-painted, scuffed-up stage and a few curtains, and from a box here and a flat there, a touch of light there and a funny hat over there, conjure up in their own minds a believable, fully fleshed world. It’s my job as an actor to perform to the best of my ability so that they are able to make that imaginative leap.

Now, as an actor I have the benefit of hearing audience response as I perform. (I once spoke to a film actress who said she hated acting in front of an audience because “they interfere with my performance.” This is so alien to the way a stage actor thinks that it boggled my mind. Audiences don’t interfere with your performance–they’re the reason for the performance, and they give you feedback. If the audience isn’t responding, you work hard–and there’s no work harder than acting in front of an unappreciative audience). Writing isn’t identical, of course, because we don’t see the audience in front of us, unless it’s at a reading, where the two art forms overlap. Yet that collaboration with the audience still exists. A book without a reader is just a stack of paper. Our words are just flecks of ink on dead trees until they enter the mind of a reader–our audience–where they take form. Just as actors conjure up whole bloody battlefields in the minds of the audience with two guys in fiberglass armor and a couple of spotlights covered with red cellophane, so we conjure up whole worlds in the minds of our readers with 26 black marks arranged in various ways.

If readers sometimes react strongly to our story in ways we didn’t expect, then it means we have done our job well. The story, which is really improvised by their own imaginations from the chart (slipping from a theatrical metaphor to a jazz one) provided by the author, has become something they have also invested time and effort into creating, just as the writer did, and thus they feel it belongs to them, in a sense, as much as it does to its putative creator.

No, I don’t believe I owe the reader–the audience–anything specific with regard to the content of my performance: the plot of the book, the characters, whether it is a tragedy or a comedy. But I do owe them the best performance I can muster, a performance that strives to kindle their own imaginations and allows them to bring the story to life in their own way.

I owe him/her a darn good read. I owe him the sure knowledge that he is in the hands of someone who knows what he’s doing, that I won’t disappoint him with characters that act illogically, or afflict him with bad plotting, bad grammar,or bad speling…er, spelling. I owe the reader the best book I am capable of writing–a good book as I understand good to be. I am not shouting into an empty auditorium–I am speaking to someone.

In fact, as I write this, I’m speaking to someone. YOU, whoever is reading this comment. You have given me your time and I owe it to you to be as interesting and entertaining and thought-provoking as I can be.

I won’t always succeed. Maybe I didn’t succeed with this post, and maybe I don’t succeed with my novels. Maybe you feel let down, that I owed you more for your time and barely made a down-payment, or that I reneged on my debt entirely. But when I first set word to computer screen, I was in your debt, and owed you the best writing and thinking I could muster.

So close the curtain; my comment is done. I bow, and exit stage right, and hope you have found my short performance worthwhile…as I hope the readers of my novels find those much longer performances worth the price of admission.

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/2007/01/what-does-a-writer-owe-his-readers/

1 comment

    • Anita Daher on January 8, 2007 at 3:15 pm
    • Reply

    Hi Ed,
    The reason we write is individual, and so is our sense of responsibility, I think. I do believe I owe readers a good story that makes sense, but trumping that is my responsibility to myself. I want to write the best story I am capable of. I do not want to take “the easy road,” whatever that road might be. I want my current or next story to be better than my last. By paying attention to this responsibility to my writer self, my readers are (hopefully) taken care of.

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