The Author Reader Relationship: “I don’t know. What do you want to do?”
In my college theatre department, I had a “professor” whose such great knowledge allowed him to bypass his absent B.A. and teach young and very impressionable minds. His resume was lengthy, and though I have never been certain if his work in the 60’s was actually impressive or he just knew we were naïve enough not to be able to tell, he has a great list of self-accolades.
He once told us this story—which I would very much like to know how we got on it—about the time when he was flown out to a new city to direct a show. He agreed, on the grounds that there would be someone to “take care of him.” See, when he was making “so many creative decisions,” he “lost the ability” to make them for himself. This I believe. He barely had the capacity to think on a clear day.
In any case, he got what he wanted, and they hired him an assistant.
So the day he arrived in town, he went to rehearsal and was worn out by the end, as he knew he would be. The day was so long and the decisions so plentiful, he just was gone by the time he got out.
He turns to his assistant and says, (in a way I imagine a more annoying Boo from Monsters Inc. would say) “I’m hungry.”
So the assistant turns to him and asks, “Where would you like to go?”
And my teacher wanted to start crying.
Now, it is ridiculous for him to think that the assistant would be able to decide where to take him. She had no idea how much he wanted to spend, if he wanted quick, cheap, or good, or even what his tastes were. It makes absolute sense that she wouldn’t be able to give a good answer until she knew more about him. All of this expectation is unreasonable. Except that’s what he’s paying her for.
This is an analogy to the writer/reader relationship. The reader is someone who is looking for an opinion, an idea. They are hungry, but they aren’t sure what they want. Or rather, they are bored, and they aren’t sure what they want to think about. What they really desire is for someone else to make a decision and allow them to then accept or reject it.
When authors (or, the more typical, playwrights) say, “It’s about whatever you want it to be about,” what they’re really saying is, “I don’t know. Where do you want to eat?”
This is a really frustrating conversation that everyone’s been in. We all sit around waiting for someone else to introduce an option. Whether it’s because we can’t think of anything or because we don’t want to be shot down, it’s the same for the arts. When a creator doesn’t want to say, “Let’s do this,” it’s because he doesn’t want to be told, “That’s a stupid idea!”
But most importantly, it illustrates why it is okay to have overbearing opinions and, yes, even tell readers what they should be thinking. That’s what they want. Sometimes they only want it so they can feel superior to you, but they want it none of the less.
And the perception that someone not knowing what he want to think means he doesn’t like thinking would be the same as someone not knowing where he wants to eat doesn’t like eating. Sometimes we’ve just eaten at the same place far too long and now we want something new. In fact, that’s usually it.
Whether we notice it or not, we’re always thinking. We spend a great portion of our day daydreaming and fantasizing. What happens is, just like eating, we get too much of something and we get sick of it. So we want something new.
People can get inspired by a lot of things that aren’t entertainment, but entertainment is the one place that we’re paying to get inspired. As a writer it’s important to realize that liking something is being inspired by it. It could be something as “deep” as wanting to go save the third-world countries, or something as shallow as wanting to become an international spy.
Watch children. They don’t censor themselves. Where adults like to hide how they fantasize, kids are right out in the open about it. And you know what they do after they watch a Superman movie? They pretend to be Superman. Or they pretend to be with Superman. They are inspired to be Superman or do what Superman does. Just like your much older readers do.
In all essence, a good story needs to change the flow of thought, meaning that what the reader was thinking before he started it is not what he’s thinking after he finished it.
Which is why “it’s about whatever you want it to be about,” makes for a bad story. Sure, a lot of times people will take a work in and use it to mean whatever they want it to mean, but that’s not because the author is allowing for that to happen. At least not obviously. It’s because the story appears to be concrete enough that it supports whatever theories other people have. Sure, the bench may be an illusion, but that’s different then just saying, “Pretend a bench is there.”
It’s the difference between them misinterpreting what you’re saying and actually talking for you. We go back to the restaurant analogy. The two of you are sitting in a car, and Reader can’t think of anywhere she wants to go, whether it be because she’s sick of the place or they’re closed, her ideas aren’t working for her right now. She’s blanking out. So Author says, “How about fast food?”
Now, Reader’s thinking, “Yeah! Dairy Queen!” When really, the author meant McDonalds. Needless to say, Reader went in a different direction, but she was stimulated into having an idea which came from Author’s idea. Sometimes the writer might be okay with the alternative idea—“Dairy Queen is good”—and sometimes not—“I got food poisoning there last time!”—but, if we say that the author’s goal was to stimulate the reader into thinking, well, he did his job.
But this is different than had Reader not been able to think of anything, asked Author, and Author said, “I will go where ever you want to go.”
Well, thanks. Way to tackle the problem.
And here’s the thing. While a friendly relationship allows for each party to decide if they want to take charge, becoming a storyteller (and for a price) is announcing you are the leader.
As the leader, you get some benefits. You get control and you get respect, as well as the added bonus of never having to go where you don’t want to (metaphorically too). But then you have obligation to your followers. You make decisions so they don’t have to. You put an idea out there to be judged so they don’t have to. They get the grace of sitting around and judging other people, without having to be the one to make a suggestion and risk being judged themselves. And if they don’t like that, if they aren’t interested in the joy of “not thinking,” and they want to make decisions, they can, easily. It’s called writing.
Which basically means that if they’re choosing to read, they want decisions made for them to accept or reject. If they aren’t interested in that, then they’ll write their own book.
You don’t want to be the person in the backseat who says, “I don’t care where we go,” and then shoot down all their ideas. What that does is give you all the benefits and none of the consequences, which puts all the negatives on Reader’s shoulders. And why would she pay for that?
And this, “I don’t care where we go. No,” mentality, is all an author can do if he’s not going to make a suggestion. He can’t take a concrete piece of material and have it evolve to match whatever it is they want. The reader suggests, “It’s about racism!” But then the book says something that doesn’t support that. That’s shooting their idea down.
People try to be really vague about their answers, muttering something that might sound like a yes to the individual, but a no to everyone else. When he’s talking to a crowd whose all making different suggestions, he can’t agree with any of them because that would be disagreeing with everyone else. But muttering an answer isn’t an answer, and no one’s going to be satisfied with it. And anyway, the conversation is going to carry on, and so, even if Reader believed you agreed with him, you’re going to have more and more details that contradict that.
Consistently being vague is boring and will flaw itself out in the end. Even if you’re convincing in the beginning, the conversation will eventually become:
“Do you want to go to a fast food place?”
“Or there’s that Italian restaurant on Main.”
“Well which is it?”
“Are you just saying yes to everything I say?”
Sure, he might think he’s being the “nice guy” and giving her control over what they do, but in reality, he’s just passing responsibility onto her shoulders. If he doesn’t make a suggestion, he can’t get rejected. So it becomes her job to put herself out there. And if that’s what she wanted to be doing, she’d be doing it already. While foisting yourself and your opinions on other people can be irritating, refusing to give them is just as annoying.