I wrote this blog post quite a few weeks ago and am just now getting around to publishing it. Much of the sentiment went into an article for Slate, so I held off until that story ran. I’ve been on this particular soapbox for a long, long time. During my book tour a year ago, I often slid into a speech about the roots of storytelling. Those roots are why I made involuntary gagging sounds while reading William Petrocelli suggest that no good writer should care what their readers think.
In reaction to the news that streaming digital book services might aggregate the reading habits of its users and offer that data to publishers and authors, William had this to say:
Good writers know that this is nonsense. They don’t need to monitor a reader’s viewing habits to tell them what to write. They develop their own vision and their own style, and they know that the most important thing they have to offer is their authenticity.
William closes his long rant with the opinions of two NYT readers, and we can assume that by “giving them the last word,” he agrees with the ridiculous views they spout:
Art is a supremely individual expression. It doesn’t ask permission; it doesn’t take an exit poll and adjust accordingly. Artists say what they know, paint what they see — they have no choice in the matter — and it’s our privilege to be brought into their world, so distinct from our own, and to be altered by that experience. Once artists start asking how many “likes” they’ve garnered, or listening to customer-satisfaction surveys to increase their sales, they’re no longer making art; they’re moving product.
It doesn’t surprise me that many companies are eager to profit from easily acquired electronic data about reading habits or anything else, but what does surprise me is that writers would openly embrace the idea of tracking their readers as they read so that the writers might modify their writing in hopes of increasing sales. Writers such as these could be described as “tech savvy,” or known by an adjective that predates the digital age: hacks.
Taking this hard line that writers are the sole creators of their work and should take input from no one seems outright insane to me. Writers shouldn’t take their agents’ and editors’ suggestions into account? What about their spouse’s input? What about beta readers? Nobody?
Some writers might be writing to create pure art, and that’s wonderful. I respect that. But many others are writing to entertain or enlighten, and these are equally valid reasons. Knowing when we are doing any of these things, or when we are failing to do them, is invaluable. I would love to know when my readers put down my book and never pick it back up. Actors on stage, musicians performing live, comedians — they all have this feedback loop, and it can enhance their art. It doesn’t have to diminish it.
Not everything new needs to be hated, just because it’s new. That’s the vibe I get from this article and from the two comments selected. It’s especially daft because what these people are railing against isn’t new. It gets back to the root of storytelling, which was oral and would’ve included audience participation and would’ve hinged on audience reactions. The sterile, unchanging, single-sourced novel is a comparatively modern tradition, one that had its brief day and is now going the way of the dodo. Good riddance. Let’s get back to our roots. Those who want to pretend that the new is somehow ancient can bask in their ignorance of history. Meanwhile, I’m going to celebrate the live aspects of writing for a participatory audience. I’m going to serialize and write for a live audience. I’m going to celebrate fan fiction and wiki-fiction and Twitter and the madness of a hundred voices swirling on the wind while I fashion my stories.
Because that’s the way it has always been done. And if these hipsters were true hipsters, they would reach further back into the past than the last two hundred years and embrace what is human and universal in all of us. Storytelling. Live. With a community. So we know when someone is listening.