There was a time when people who wrote books did so in seclusion, in cabins by the river. They talked about their work with only a select few and they discussed the actual details of what they were writing with an even smaller number of people. When they were done writing their story — a narrative comprising tens of thousands of words — they went about the task of getting it published. This involved negotiations that ran into months, sometimes years.
At the end of the process, there was a rather fat book. When it fell into the hands of a reader, it became an important part of his/her life for the duration of time that it took to finish the tome (and perhaps for a short while afterwards as well). Some books do become lifelong friends. But back in the day, in a less connected age, such friendships were pretty personal.
These days, a person’s love for a book (or a fiction franchise such as a television series) often defines them. There are all manner of clubs online where fans of shows or books (or even particular characters) gather and talk about the things they love. They discuss plots, argue over the merits of fictional events, debate what one thing means compared to the other. Often, they also — and this is what this essay is about — disagree with the story.
I find this curious because it has a lot to do with the way stories are told in the connected age. Writers blog about their writing progress, entire publications devote themselves to the task of trading rumours about forthcoming stories and what shape they might take in light of readers’ hopes and expectations. These enterprises thrive in the aforementioned culture of audience involvement. A culture where the reader/viewer is allowed to be part of the formerly solitary process of creating a work of art.
As someone who both reads and writes (and likes to think he is read) I wonder if readers should have a say.
I believe art should be arrogant. I believe that there is something to be said in favour of respecting the storyteller’s vision in its totality. That readers should surrender themselves to the writer’s / director’s / producer’s vision of the story. Instead, what we have are increasing instances of readers being asked what direction a story should take. We have audience opinion being taken into account when deciding whether a character in a television series lives or dies. We have viewer polls to decide if a story deserves to continue.
On one level, these are market pressures that can’t be escaped in a world where the success of mass media storytelling depends on acceptability and fan support. But on another level, it is about pandering to the whims of the entitled reader.
I recently read someone well-known (can’t remember name, can’t find reference either) say that ‘if readers knew what they needed, they would be writers’.
Feedback is not a bad thing. But more than one genius creator has thrown reader feedback to the wind in favour of pursuing his own agenda. Only a few days ago, the social web seemed to be full of outrage over a particular scene in the popular television series Game of Thrones. Outraged viewers were informing everyone how they will stop rooting for a particular character and how they might even stop watching the show. Mind you, all this was in reaction to events happening in a fictional world.
While the level of involvement these fans (short for fanatics, in case you didn’t know) is admirable and will make any creator’s day, I am not sure if such enthusiasm should actually be allowed to decide the tone of an ongoing narrative. While Game of Thrones producers consciously stay away from fan debates on the web, I keep fearing that the rather impatient fandom of BBC’s Sherlock series might force the hand of the show’s producers and end up making sure that the seasons that follow will not be up to the mark.
Think about it. How effective might Chekov’s short stories have been if a horde of ‘fans’ had crowded around his desk screaming “OMG OMG! Love your work! Can’t wait for the next one. PLEASE HURRY UP!”
Or consider this: If fans were to be allowed to vote on which character in Game of Thrones ‘deserves’ to die next, how much better would the story be as a result of it? Most of the appeal of the series lies in the fact that Martin’s imagination has created an unjust, unpredictable, and shocking world. We love it because it hurts us. Would a collective decision regarding the way it ought to work allow it to even live? If such a vote doesn’t outright kill GoT, it will surely turn it into a world devoid of the magic that has come to define it.
In keeping with our quest for a one-size-fits-all solution, we have now reached a stage where we mindlessly democratise everything. ‘People power’, we are led to believe, can successfully make up for authorial voice and individual creativity. In an atmosphere such as this, what has also come to pass is that the author is no longer trusted with the story he has decided to tell.
If Joss Whedon is telling an Avengers story, I want to hear it exactly as he would tell it, no matter who dies. If Steven Moffat has an answer to the question of how Sherlock Holmes survived the fall, I want to know his answer and not those proposed by nameless fans on the web. The one who is telling the story has a bigger picture in mind and those who are watching (or reading) it, don’t. If you are a reader and you think that a story you are reading isn’t going the way it should, stop reading it and write the story you want to read instead. Don’t second guess the choices of the person who is telling you the story. You may not see it yet, but the storyteller has a plan.