Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat, has given a keynote speech at the Manchester Literature Festival in which she decried the growing sense of entitlement among readers and laid out a twelve-point “Writer’s Manifesto” laying down the rules by which she planned to live. Here’s the complete text of the speech. Meanwhile, The Guardian has a piece covering the content of the speech before Harris gave it, and The Telegraph has quotations from and a summary of it.
I’ve written on reader-entitlement before, when Guy Gavriel Kay discussed the kind of entitlement authors like George R.R. Martin have run into when they don’t write fast enough to suit their fans. It seems to be a side-effect of community-building. When readers can take part in a community along with the author, the pedestal they put the author on loses some height, and they start to feel entitled to make the kind of snarky comments that can rub people the wrong way. Another factor is that the rise of self-publishing has given readers the impression that there isn’t anything so special about writing a book—after all, anyone can do it.
That said, this can be kind of a touchy issue, because it’s very easy for a writer who speaks out against fan entitlement to look as though she’s exhibiting her own sense of entitlement—especially if you just go by the news articles that may elide the true feeling behind the author’s words by summarizing them or quoting parts of them out of context. Even just reading the text of the speech rather than hearing it spoken can change the sense in which it is given.
But just because readers might exhibit a sense of entitlement doesn’t mean that authors are always in the right themselves. A number of authors were upset that Google was scanning their books without permission, but an appeals court ruled that Google’s scanning was fair use. Yes, sometimes other businesses or consumers do things that authors don’t like, but sometimes it turns out they actually do have the right to do those things.
By the same token, Harris inveigles against Clean Reader, an e-reading app that searches and replaces to replace offensive language in e-books with more neutral terms. (Harris mistakenly states the app was withdrawn from sale, but actually it just removed its own built-in e-book store; it is still available for free, and still works on EPUB and PDF e-books bought from elsewhere.) A book is not a salad where the consumer can ask for substitutions, Harris says. Writers do their best, but they can’t please everyone, and you don’t have the right to change their writing to suit your tastes. If you don’t like the book as-written, just read something else instead.
But at least in the United States, using an application to perform edits on a purchased product after the fact for your own personal use is considered fair use, and doing this to home videos has even been declared explicitly legal by an act of Congress. Readers may not have the right to decide how writers write, but writers don’t have the right to decide how readers read, either.
Still, Harris feels that readers are often too demanding, and when authors speak out against those demands, they risk being seen as the one with the chip on their shoulder:
On the internet I’ve seen a growing number of sites and blogs enumerating what readers expect of writers. Requests for increased diversity, increased awareness of current issues, requests for time and attention, gratis copies of books for review, interviews and guest blog posts – or simply demands to work faster. Readers have numerous spaces in which to discuss author behaviour, to analyse their politics, lifestyle and beliefs – sometimes, in extreme cases, to urge other readers to boycott the work of those authors whose themes are seen as too controversial, or whose ideas do not coincide with their own. Authors are expected to respect these reader spaces, whatever the nature of the discussion. To comment on a bad review – or even to be seen to notice it – is to risk being labelled an “author behaving badly”. Authors whose work is deemed to have problematic content are expected to analyse the cause – and in some cases, to apologize. There is an increasing call for trigger warnings; profanity warnings; age guidelines – in order to help the reader choose amidst a bewildering number of books. The demands on authors are numerous; often even daunting.
But do readers ever ask themselves what authors want of them? Do authors ever ask themselves what they want of their readers?
For their part, Harris explains, authors just want to make a living, and to receive validation for their work. In that light, she lays down a twelve-part manifesto explaining exactly what she wants, and what she will do. It boils down to that she will do her best to write compelling stories, and readers have the choice whether to read them or not.
Harris is certainly to be commended for stating this so plainly, especially given that not everyone will agree. A lot of people who hold the sorts of attitudes Harris condemns will take that condemnation personally, and it’s sure to cause some controversy. But Harris isn’t exactly a stranger to controversy, and indeed prior controversies probably led to this manifesto. I suspect that enough people will respect her position that she probably won’t be too disappointed to lose the custom of those who don’t.