An author’s contract with his readers

Last week I went to the library and got out a couple of classics: ‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell and ‘Of Mice and Men’ by John Steinbeck. Both are small books of about 100 pages, easily read in a few hours, and both are books I probably should have read at school. So when I saw them showcased together in my local library on one of those revolving display stands normally used to sell postcards I thought ‘why not’.

Animal Farm was exactly what I expected it to be. Not what you’d call spectacular writing, but a very interesting idea, ably executed. Basically, it fulfilled the promise of the premise nicely.

Next came Of Mice And Men. Steinbeck won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Novel Prize for Literature, so I was expecting something a bit special. It wasn’t. In fact, I came away from the book feeling pretty cheated. I felt that the author had somehow been in breach of the implied contract between a writer and his readers.

This got me thinking. Do writers really have an implied contract with their readers? And if so, what are the terms?

The Duty of Care

Books and movies are often described as a rollercoaster of emotion. Sure, if you pay to go on an actual rollercoaster, you expect (and demand) a few ups and downs. You are perfectly prepared to feel like you’re about to die at any point, but ACTUALLY dying? If the rollercoaster operator has to tell an on looking Mrs Pigfender as she sees me launched off the track, “I’m sorry ma’am, but on this one the rider dies at the end” then she would be justified in being just a teeny bit upset. At the very least, I’d expect her to want her money back.

I absolutely want a fair amount of mild peril in my stories. I want to have the tangible risk – hell even a seeming inevitability – of failure in there. But I still expect the rollercoaster to end and bring me and the protagonist back to a stable state at its conclusion. Sure it can be at great personal cost to the protagonist – not everything has to have a happily-ever-after Disney ending – but he still has to win, right? I mean, would you want to watch a James Bond film where the bad guy succeeds? An episode of Perry Mason where the guilty person gets away with it? How about reading a Lee Child book where Jack Reacher fails to solve the problem and gets a bullet in the head for his trouble?

Do we really want to watch films or read books where the underlying message is no more sophisticated than “the world sucks” or “sometimes bad things happen to good people”?

Just like the classic relationships of teacher / student, parent / child, and doctor / patient there is surely a duty of care between an author and his readers. That duty is to not set up a scenario so impossible that they end up copping out and just saying: oh well, I guess the good guy loses. There are writers out there who think that if the story prompts an emotional response (whatever that emotion happens to me) then they have done their job. I contend that if they try to create that emotional response through simply abusing their duty of care – by breaching what they know is in that contract they signed with us as readers – then they are guilty of the writing equivalent of a doctor taking advantage of their patient.

Sure, you can evoke strong emotions that way. That doesn’t mean I’m going to thank you for it.



Let me know in the comments if you disagree (or agree), or if you can think of anything else that might be in the implied contract between an author and his readers.

Please also feel free to compliment me on my drawing of some animals.

2 thoughts on “An author’s contract with his readers

  1. nom

    First, and most importantly, the animals are awesome. The pig looks kind of grumpy (which indicated the tone of the article to come), the rabbit seems resigned to way the world is while I couldn’t work out who was meant to wear the slipper. Err, sorry. I meant: I couldn’t quite work out the expression on the mouse’s face.

    Of Mice and Men was Pulitzer winner you say? And then you expect to be like a Jack Reacher novel? Or to follow the same rules as pulp fiction? Really? Did you read the fine print on that implied contract of yours?

    I’ll need to think a bit more about implied contracts between author and reader, but I don’t think such a contract requires adherence to Hollywood rules. Especially if it’s “literature”. I do think that authors have a responsibility to be consistent within the rules of the fictional universes they create. Whether that’s a World War II drama, a fantasy epic or a whodunit mystery, the story has to make sense within the constraints the author creates for it. It doesn’t need to resolve neatly (if at all) as long as there is progress: Something needs to change through the course of the novel. That might be the main character, their world, achievement of their “quest” or maybe our understanding of the character and their world (or even better, our world). If nothing changes, then I might feel ripped off. But it doesn’t have to be happy. Or neat. The good guy can lose. Our fairy stories are full of the good guys losing (especially when you hear the originals rather than the Disneyfied versions). They are morality tales, warning tales, sometimes tales of celebration or of mourning, and allow experiencing of emotions we may never know in real life while telling of us the risks and perils of the world.

    These are the better stories. The ones that give us the gift of both narrative experiences and emotional rides we may never otherwise have.

    To reference your analogy: Sometimes the best, or at least most memorable, roller-coasters are the ones where you come off thinking “Never again”. Some people love those roller coasters, others avoid them. So who is the roller-coaster architect contracting with?

    By the way, I still love the animals. Including the mouse. :)

    1. pigfender Post author

      Ah, yes. To clarify: Steinbeck won a Pulitzer, but it was for a different work.

      I’m not saying OfMice needs to be like a Jack Reacher novel (although honestly I think the writing was pretty poor – it felt like a 60 page book where the author had gone back and added extra bits to try and get it to a publishable length), but I’d say that it needs to do more than just get you drunk and take advantage of you. That strikes me as a pretty cheap way of provoking an emotional response; the written equivalent of a slasher movie (although slasher movies still have the decency to end with an incapacitated evil).

      Not that I haven’t done similar things myself, of course. I got complaints about the ending in NIAD#1, for example.

      To put it another way, I didn’t think OfMice was very good, just 100 pages of repetitive fluff building up to Steinbeck’s Big idea. The only way he was able to get an emotional reaction (unless boredom is an emotion?) was to knowingly break the implied contract he had with the reader. The fact that it worked is empirical evidence that there IS such a contract.

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