Not By Committee

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.


  1. says

    Oh, I remember reading that article in the paper. I love my ereader, and tracking data isn’t anything new. It’s why all those grocery stores have those stupid cards where they don’t let you get sale prices without one. Though I did wonder how reliable any of the reading data really is. After all, it can’t tell you WHY anyone took that particular action. I might ditch the ebook to read in print for a while, and it can’t track that.

    I think you are right on the committee thing. The job of the writer is to do something the reader wasn’t expecting, otherwise why are you reading the book? As a reader I adore it when a writer pulls the metaphorical rug out from under me. Even Choose Your Own Adventures had surprises.

  2. says

    One of the things I love about your stories is that I never really know where they are going to go. I might have guesses, but you’ve thrown more than one wrench into the works, and I enjoy the anticipation. Never want to do anything to change that.

  3. stan says

    This is madness !
    Readers read by definition, if they want to write they shall establish as Writesr, but this is a parody, i agree.

    On the other hand e-readers are great, even if the invasion of privacy is frightening, the e-ink screens are a must have if you love reading. I have a K***** and I love it, it just hasn’t seen the internet since I bought it, so no snooping on my reading habits 😉

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