Writers, Readers, the Books Between

- by Elaine Isaak

Books have always struck me as a transaction between writer and reader.  I create a world and some characters and tell a story there–but the story is not complete until it comes to life in the mind of the reader.  Writers talk about making a “contract” with the reader just by beginning a story in a certain way.  The opening establishes the reader’s expectations about what kind of story this will be, the scope of events likely to happen in it, and what sort of ending will be appropriate.

The writer likes to then upset this contract, but only a bit, providing an ending that is surprising, but still fits the opening, or taking some unexpected turns with the plot that keep the reader guessing.  But a few things lately have had me thinking about the expectations that move the other direction, what the writer expects from the reader.We expect them to respect our copyright, by not posting the work on the internet, photocopying it for friends, or writing their own version of the plot or characters.  To the writer, this expectation seems perfectly reasonable–but it is as unstated as that contract with the reader.  With the changes in technology, both for the delivery of the words we write and the diversity of ways they can be communicated, many readers and writers, too, are finding copyright expectations to be complex rather than clear.  We’re still working through that part of the apparently updated contract with the writer.

We expect readers to be interested in, well, reading.  This, too, seems obvious, but there are many reasons for buying books, and not all of them result in reading the text.  Some people have recently purchased e-reader systems and filled them up with books not because they intend to read, but because the device itself is so appealing:  the new version of buying a book for its cover.  The books are contained in a sort of prestige object, the way wealthy people once bought books by the yard to create visually impressive libraries. 

Other readers or once-were readers buy books as if they could thus purchase the time to read them.  Ownership of the book symbolizes this commitment to something they enjoy, whether that is the act of reading, or the content of the book itself.  It moves beyond that expected reader/writer contract, and becomes a contract between the reader and the book as a unit of time.  Here, on my nightstand, is a display of how I wish I could spend my time.

There are books purchased because the buyer perceives him or herself as the kind of person who reads books like that.  This is the sort of book I *ought* to be interested in, the sort of book I think of myself as liking, the sort of book I want those around me to associate with me.  The book itself becomes the status symbol.

We here are lucky to be novelists, and commercial ones at that.  Our books are likely to be read, speedily or furtively.  Our books will be downloaded by those who love them and may want to re-read them over and over, to visit with them like old friends in stolen moments.  We fulfill the contracts we create with our readers, and they, in turn, greet each new book with a joy that mirrors our own.

Comments are closed.