It always surprises me when I read something by a writer angry with his or her readership. There’s been some buzz about Laurell K. Hamilton’s post ‘Dear Negative Reader,’ which she put up several years back. It has become a trope. Thus, I address this post not to negative readers (I know I have some, based on Amazon reviews), and not to positive readers, but to all readers, because I value and respect you all.
(Digression: how many times have you heard author types use the term ‘trope’ and you still can’t figure out what it means? You’ve looked it up three times and the definitions still don’t make sense? (Guess who else did that.) Because I believe in liking my reader, in no wise do I plan to fail you. A trope is a figure of speech, essentially, such as a common phrase that has become a metaphor in its own right–something not necessarily taken literally. The idea is that you are familiar with it, it means something to you. For example, talking about women and society, when we refer to the Madonna/whore trope, the meaning is clear: it speaks of the mentality that admits of only two roles for a woman, the virgin–>virtuous matron or the promiscuous tramp. Most of you probably agree with me that this trope is a plague, but the point is that you understand it. That’s why it’s a trope.)
Thus, when I heard of the trope, I looked up Hamilton’s post and asked myself what wasn’t right with it. She isn’t the first author to write an annoyed letter to her readership. The fact that she wrote it tells us she was annoyed, and she annoyed her public in turn. There’s some irony in the fact that many of Hamilton’s characters seem to dislike one another, but seem to need each other. They do have a point: she’s taken the Anita Blake vampire series to a strange place, and they lament this. She also has a point, if one ill-advised to make: “if you don’t like it, stop reading. My sales figures tell me someone does.” It’s like catching your control freak boss in a complete contradiction where he cannot admit error. His hubris will permit no reaction except to sit there in humiliated rage, while plotting to get you for it. I hope it makes you feel better that you got to wear the mantle of rightness and score a point, because he’s about to make you regret it. Maybe it would have been smarter to shut up. Tact is knowing when to shut up.
I understand Hamilton finally reaching the point where she cut loose about it. I do not understand the way she did it. Everyone who says they no longer like the series, almost surely once did. I have never walked a literary mile in Hamilton’s heels; I have no way to know what it feels like to write books that are guaranteed sales, nor to read screenfuls of vituperation against those books. But I’m pretty sure that it’s much better to have a lot of happy readers and some haters than to lack a readership. If no one is slamming your book, it’s because no one cares. Slamming the book is buzz. Buzz helps put your book on the endcap. The endcap is the only place you make any money working with New York’s big houses.
All that said, there’s a basic problem with the mentality. I think that how we feel about our readership truly affects the quality and value of how we write. If you’re annoyed at your readers (those would also be your customers and free advertisers, just to put this in perspective), then your writing may show it. Perhaps you won’t be able to notice; perhaps they can’t put their fingers on it; but it will show. They may not spot it outright, but they will feel it. Ask any women about guys who gave them a creepy feeling; couldn’t place why, couldn’t say how, just something about the guys made the women want to take a shower. The only cure for this is for the writer to like his or her readership.
You can tend to disagree with your readers and still like them. I worked on a Bible book. We all know I’m not a Christian, and mostly we all know how strong are my feelings about some of the church/state separation issues in US society today. Did that mean I was writing for readers I didn’t like? Quite the contrary. The reader comes to such a book seeking to learn, to grow, to expand understanding. Those are meta-goals that resonate with me no matter what the subject is. He or she may come bearing a friendly challenge: “I already know a lot about this. What can you tell me that will be new and fresh?” I like that challenge. If I didn’t, I shouldn’t have been writing about it. Part of liking your reader is to presume the positive, which is fair; by taking time to read your material, the reader may be said to have done the writer that courtesy. The writer owes its return. I didn’t presume that my readers would loathe me if they knew about my own religious beliefs. I presumed they, as literate people seeking to learn by reading, might find a far kinder interpretation (pick one of many). They and I might have been different, but what united us was a love of reading and a wish that writing be well researched and competently executed.
Were I to give aspiring writers any guidance, it would first be three words: like your reader.