I watched with interest the recent controversy around the final installment of Veronica Roth’s Divergent series. When Allegiant was published, readers lashed out. Of the more than 2,000 reviews on Amazon.com* two weeks after the book was published, nearly 35 per cent were one-star reviews. (The first two books in the series overwhelmingly received five-stars.) One reviewer even demanded that ‘you’ve got to give them hope.’
This comment gave me pause. What do authors owe their readers?
Today’s authors are inundated with reader response – Amazon and Good Reads reviews, book blogs, fan fiction, not to mention personal contact on email and various types of social media. First and foremost I feel privileged that someone has read and taken the time to respond to my novel – whether it’s a glowing review or honest criticism. But I’ve also had young readers ask for friendship and family advice. I never expected that this level of personal engagement would be part of my role as a published author.
Readers have always reached out to authors. When I was eleven, I wrote a letter to Johanna Reiss, author of The Upstairs Room. The book is her autobiographical account of surviving the Holocaust. She responded with a lovely hand-written letter, which I still cherish. (I’m not sure an email response will ever have the same charm as something penned on personal stationary.)
The beauty of books is that you can find and lose yourself in stories. Unlike movies and television – books are personal. No two people read exactly the same book. I’m amazed and delighted by what people find in my stories – some things I intended and others from readers’ individual experiences.
Roth crafted a well-reasoned response to the reader criticism on the finale of her series. “I don’t want to tell you how to read these books or even to tell you there’s one right way to read them,” Roth wrote in a blog on her web site. “I just want to offer you some insights into how I personally found my way to this ending…I’m the author, yes, but this book is yours as well as mine now, and our voices are equal in this conversation.”
What do authors owe readers?
I believe I owe my readers an engaging and authentic story with a satisfying – but not necessarily happy – ending. I promise to be thoughtful, not flippant. Any quirks or twists and turns will be relevant to the story – not random musings or showing off. I like to read and write books that feel as if they have life beyond the final page. I don’t mind when loose ends aren't tied up in a tidy bow. I write endings that are hopeful, but not always fairy-tale happy – but I don’t feel authors owe readers hope. We do owe them integrity.
So what are your thoughts?
Readers, what do authors owe you?
And authors, what do you owe your readers?
*Interestingly UK Amazon reviewers were much more positive – with only 13 per cent giving one-starred reviews – and proclaiming ‘brave conclusion to the series’ and ‘going out with a bang’.
Sara writes books for both children and teens. Dark Parties, her first young adult novel, won the SCBWI Crystal Kite Award for Europe. Her second novel for teens – Half Lives – is a story told in two voices from a pre- and post-apocalyptic time. She also writes a funny magical series for young readers – Magic Trix. Find out more about Sara at www.sara-grant.com.