Not By Committee


Crossposted to the Deadline Dames.

Yes, of course. Your ebook is reading you.

When you’re reading an ebook, every move you make can be tracked–and probably is. Set aside how skeezy it is to have your reading habits suddenly fodder for advertisers’ consumption; what I want to talk about is a passage near the bottom of that article.

In Tawna Fenske’s romantic caper “Getting Dumped”—which centers on a young woman who finds work at a landfill after getting laid off from her high-profile job at the county’s public relations office—readers can choose which of three suitors they want the heroine to pursue. The most recent batch of statistics showed that 53.3% chose Collin, a Hugh Grant type; 16.8% chose Pete, the handsome but unavailable co-worker; and 29.7% of readers liked Daniel, the heroine’s emotionally distant boyfriend.

Ms. Fenske originally planned to get rid of Daniel by sending him to prison and writing him out of the series. Then she saw the statistics. She decided 29.7 % was too big a chunk of her audience to ignore. (Wall Street Journal)

To which I say, oh, no. Oh hell no.

It may work very well for some writers to do this sort of thing–enter into collaboration with their readers, so to speak, or even take votes on how readers want a book to end. But it sends a terrible frisson of loathing up my back whenever I think about it. It’s just not for me, as a writer or a reader. And it is one more reason why I do not have an ebook reader, why I will not in the foreseeable future have one, and why I view them with no little trepidation. Piracy aside, there’s several more insidious invasions to consider.

To me, there is a compact between writer and reader. The writer’s responsibility is to constantly polish their craft and not to flinch, to tell the truth as best s/he knows how. It’s the writer’s job not to pander to prejudice or talk down to their reader. (I’d go so far as to call it a sacred trust, if it didn’t sound so incredibly lame.) Having a focus group (because that’s what this essentially is) pressuring a writer to end things a certain way betrays that compact at its very root.

How can you tell an honest story with that sort of pressure, unconscious or conscious, breathing on you? Especially if it’s a story that deals with anything controversial, any subject that needs honesty and refusal to flinch? How on earth can you do what the character/story needs if you have a bunch of people shouting in your ear? Writing is not a reality show, it’s not about voting someone off the damn island. How can you show a reader something they may not have thought of, an aspect of a situation they may not have considered before, if you’re taking a goddamn vote? The unconscious pressure to shape the story to a reader’s prejudice and privilege is obvious, but less obvious is the damage done to the private space where a writer creates their own truth.

Imagine if Orwell had been pressured to change the ending of 1984, or if Tolstoy had been told, write smaller, happier stories. Could, say, Lolita ever have been written? Imagine Romeo and Juliet with a bunch of fans screaming that Romeo had to live, or that they’d prefer him to run off with Tybalt. Not every writer is Orwell, Tolstoy, Nabokov, Shakespeare, yes. There are certain collaborations between writers and readers during the creation process that are helpful, useful, and of incredible worth.

But I am not a writer who can function by committee. Maybe it’s because my parents used to try to find and scavenge my journals in order to better know how to control or hurt me. Maybe it’s just my temperament. I’m not a reader who wants to be breathing down the neck of my favourite writer, either. I read because I want to see and hear new things, experience things I would never have on my own. I depend on other writers to take me places I wouldn’t normally go, show me things I wouldn’t normally see. How can they do that if I’m pressuring them to give me something comfortable, prepackaged, reduced to the majority vote? The algorithms that serve up suggestions based on similarity are invisibly confining in a way physical bookstore browsing is not. Plus, I’m just naturally intransigent, too–I don’t want publishing to become all about the summer blockbuster that will pander to explosions and tits (*cough*Michael Bay*cough*).

I’m not saying that summer blockbusters and Choose Your Own Adventure books aren’t worthy or useful. I’m simply saying that the majority of books I’d want to read are not helped by this invasion of the space between writer and reader. And that it gives me a cold chill to think of advertisers mining the ebook data and forgetting all about the less-easily-measured mass of people who prefer paper and keep their dog-earing of pages to themselves, thank you very much.

  • Summer

    Big Brother seems to come at us from every direction. As technology takes over more and more of busy lives our privacy becomes less and less. I try to keep my internet turned off on my Nook unless I am actively downloading a new book. But it is hard to stay ahead of all the tactics companies use to study(spy) on their potential customers.
    I was a big resister of the e-reader myself until things I wanted to read were only available via an e-reader format. I want a book that I can hold in my hand and turn pages. Leave one of my cool book marks between the pages until I can return to what ever adventure I am on. It is my hope that books never quit being published in a tactile form because everyone should have the pleasure of owning and reading books.

  • Shawn


    As a reader, I have no interest in “choose your adventure” books. When I want to choose an adventure, I write my own. I’d rather have a writer write the story in his/her heart & soul. Either I will like it or I won’t. If I do like it, I’ll read more. If I don’t, I might give him/her another chance, or I might find a new writer.

    Often, as I’m reading a story/book, if I don’t like the choices the writer made, I’ll start making up a new story line in my head based on the premise the writer set down. That new story line will satisfy my preferences. Ironically, this is a kind of “choose your adventure” that the author would never be able to tell me, because obviously she was going a different direction with characters & plot in the first place, and her “choices” will be different than the ones I enjoy.

    As for ebooks & ereaders … as far as I’m concerned, they are just a delivery system for the book I’m reading. They are a portable library. Occasionally I’ll look at the suggested stories, but it appears that I’m eclectic enough that the algorithms are at best hit or miss for me. I’m resigned to being data mined (I ordered socks this morning online & now every website that allows advertising is showing me ads for that company — which is stupid, because I already like this company so they don’t need to advertise to me, & since I just bought the socks, I’m not going to buy anymore today, so how is this helpful advertising? but I digress). It’s a part of being online anymore. Like all other advertising, I’m learning to filter out what’s not useful.

    But, different strokes for different folks …

    I really enjoy your blog. Thanks for sharing your perspective. ;=)

  • MaiTai48

    I nearly snorted coffee up my nose reading this. If the writer needs approval from her readers that much then um, is she really a writer? Not in my books, literally and figuratively. I don’t care what the writer does as long as I, as the reader, take something away from it. Some of the best stories I have ever read didn’t end or happen in ways that I expected or necessarily liked, and that is the way it is supposed to be! If I knew how the story was going to go or I was given a choice then guess what? I’ve just had the entire experience of being able to enter unknown, brand new worlds and meet new friends and enemies that I would never get a chance to in real life! I don’t read to have a damn vote on who gets to stay or get off of the island and I refuse to read anyone who would hand me that kind of power. ‘Cause now you’re not a writer, you’re a reality show wannabe and I hate reality TV!

    (Shudders and picks up Edgar Allen Poe grateful he never asked his readers to vote on his material)

  • Nine

    Charles Dickens seemed to have managed somehow :).
    You forget a large amount of literature used to be serialised in magazines, with readers’ letters often having significant impact on the direction and framing of the story.
    What’s old is new again.