What does a writer owe his or her readers?
Other than words, I mean.
If you’re a novelist, do you owe your readers anything other than words on paper? The readers buy your books, which hopefully puts money in your pocket – but is it anything beyond a simple business arrangement? They pay, you write. Period. Do you owe them access too? In the old days, back before the Internet directly connected writers and readers, fans might write authors a letter, and the novelist might correspond – Alice Sheldon was famous for her correspondence with fans - as James Tiptree Jr, she didn’t feel she owed them her real identity. She wrote thousands of letters to other writers, to fans, to people she hated and admired. Some authors are famously reclusive, never responding to fans either in person or via letter. I think that’s OK. I don’t think they owe the reader anything beyond that.
What about columnists and newspaper reporters?
Sure, they’ve always connected to their readers via easily ignored letters to the editor. Writing for magazines and news media seems much less personal than writing novels and short stories – though upon occasion I find myself connecting to a columnist, say like Leonard Pitts, a columnist for the Miami Herald that I particularly enjoy, or Dr. Jerry Pournelle who used to write a column in the now defunct Byte Magazine (he’s also a novelist and blogger and owner of Chaos Manor, quite possibly the worst formatted site in the history of the Internet. I love Pournelle’s writing, but his site makes my brain hurt). Do these folks owe their loyal readers anything other than the weekly column and the occasional response to angry letters?
I don’t think they do, owe their readers anything beyond words.
Traditional media isolates the writer and separates him or her from the reader to a great extent. Most people understand that – and in Science Fiction, Horror, and Mystery genres that’s where the conventions came from, at least to some extent, a desire for a closer and more personal connection between fans and creators. And if a writer chooses to attend one of those conventions, well, he or she had better be at least somewhat accessible to the fans. But outside of that venue? Not so much.
But what about blogging?
Blogging is a different form of writing. It’s much more intimate. By design, it directly connects reader and writer on a personal and informal level – at least for the most common form of content and comment enabled blogging. Do bloggers owe their readers something beyond mere words? Do bloggers owe their readers friendship, or at least what passes for friendship on the web – i.e. the emerging virtual relationships that are taking root in this rapidly evolving world wide community we call the Internet? Do bloggers owe their readers loyalty? After all, readers show up day in and day out, they read the good posts and the bad posts and the posts where you were hysterically funny and the posts where you were just too damned tired to do anything other than put up a picture of your stupid cat. Again. They offer advice and wish your family happy birthday and Merry Christmas, they send you email correcting your spelling and pointing out the stupid little errors you make in a sincere effort to help you look a little less stupid. They try to pick you up when you’re feeling blue and they knock you down a peg when you’re a little too full of yourself. They connect to other readers on your site and sometimes, if you’re very lucky, they form a community.
Do you owe them anything? Do you owe them loyalty, the ones who come back and stick with you through the good times and the bad?
I guess what I’m asking here is this: when do readers become more than just words on a screen? Ever?
Do you owe long time readers your loyalty? Or do you throw them over like a shallow high school cheerleader ditching her friends for a new boy when new readers come along?
Do you, the blogger, the writer, owe your readers anything? Beyond the words?
I think you do.
Unlike traditional media, I think the maturing and yet still evolving medium of blogging is a collaborative effort between writer and readers. No money exchanges hands. Rarely, if ever, does a blogger make a living from blogging. There’s no payoff to blogging. The only reason to do it at all, unless you’re nothing but a narcissistic bastard, is that interaction with the readers. Their comments become part of the article you wrote, sometimes – again, if you’re very lucky - their comments become the most interesting part of the post altogether and take you and your readers in directions you never imagined when you hacked out the piece in the first place.
If you do it right, you, the blogger, become little more than a catalyst for something much larger than yourself.
As most of you know, this hasn’t been the best of weeks for me, online.
And it got me thinking about loyalty and what a blogger owes his long time and faithful readers.
I think he owes them loyalty in kind.
For those of you who come back here time and again, for those of you who read Stonekettle Station on my good days and on my bad days, and for all of you who offered your support and advice and sympathy and friendship this last week, thank you.