Writer-Reader Contract

The reader has certain rights. He bought your story. Think of this as an implicit contract. He’s entitled to be entertained, instructed, amused; maybe all three. If he quits in the middle, or puts the book down feeling his time has been wasted, you’re in violation. — Larry Niven, American science fiction writer

Even if the reader doesn’t ‘buy’ your story (perhaps the book was a gift, or borrowed from a library), a writer still must play fair. You can’t advertise your novel as the family-friendly tale of a dog trying to get back home, for instance, if it’s really a steamy romance from the dog owner’s point of view.

I just finished reading Jodi Picoult’s leaving time, and despite the fact she’s a #1 New York Times bestselling author, I’m hesitant to read any more of her 20-plus works. Here’s why:

This was my first Jodi novel. The cover wasn’t memorable, but the blurb piqued my interest. In it, her characters were said to be “nuanced,” her plots “riveting,” her prose “rich,” and her stories “brilliantly” created.

leaving time is the story of a 13-year-old girl in search of her mother, who disappeared under mysterious circumstances after a tragic accident. The girl solicits help from two others: the disillusioned private detective who worked on the original case, and a psychic who doubts her own abilities.

It’s told from four points of view — the girl, her mother, the PI, and the psychic. We wade through detailed descriptions of elephant sanctuaries and behavior (the girl’s mother is a researcher in that area); we spend time identifying with the characters (all of whom speak in the first-person). We’re invested in what happens through nearly 400 pages.

Spoiler alert! Then, when we’re nearing the final few pages, we learn TWO of the characters are ghosts! Yes, ghosts, can you believe it?

If I’d known this was a paranormal tale, I wouldn’t have picked it up. If I’d been told this was a story where half the main characters were not only fictional, but dead, I wouldn’t have wasted days reading it. And if I’d known the author was hell-bent on regurgitating somebody’s old research about elephants, I’d have thrown it across the room!

I could be wrong though. Maybe I missed the point. Maybe it was brilliantly written, enlightening, and ground-breaking. Maybe I’m just miffed this sort of work by a new writer wouldn’t get out of the slush pile, when a bestselling author can get away with it.

Anybody else trudge through this one?

23 thoughts on “Writer-Reader Contract

  1. (this may be a duplicate comment, my first one seems to have disappeared)
    I like most of Jodi Picoult’s books. Leaving Time wasn’t one of my favorites. Maybe because I am not use to be being surprised at the end of a book. Having said that I liked the characters, and learning more about Elephants. They are so cool. I also like that Jodi tries new things with her writing. Established writers should take risks, in my opinion, even it they lose some readers. Now here is where I become a total hypocrite–I love JD Robbs books and was looking forward to her latest one- Devoted in Death. I read 50 pages, returned to Amazon Kindle, and gave it a 1 star review. I felt the author had taken a cheap shot directly at me. So I do hear you. But if this is your first book by this author you might want to consider giving her another chance before you write her off. And if you have not read Jeannette Walls–I really recommend.

    • Found your first one in my Spam folder — who knows why?? I’ll just respond to this one and delete the other, okay? I liked her characters, too, which is why I was so miffed. I felt like she’d manipulated me into liking them, then said, “Oh, by the way…” One of those cheap shots. I like elephants, too, and learned a lot from the research — just way more than I wanted to know, ha!

    • Thanks for sympathizing, John. As writers, we know how hard we try to straddle the line between writing what we want and writing what the reader wants. Sometimes it clicks; other times, they move on down the line. Not every book will appeal to every reader, you know.

  2. Haven’t read this one, Debbie. I read one of her books and felt I was emotionally manipulated, which sounds similar to your review. But the old: “I see dead people,” routine? Come on! Feel your pain.

    • Ah, thanks for understanding, DD. I thought maybe it was my fault, so I re-read the cover blurb — no mention of ghosts — and I re-read parts of the novel itself. Maybe I should be praising her for pulling the wool so effectively over my eyes?!!

  3. Arrrgh! Misleading blurb syndrome! When I rule the world it will be a capital offence! As will having ghosts as characters, except in ghost stories! What’s with all the ghostly books at the moment? Half the books I read seem to be being told from beyond the grave… think I’ll skip this one. Thanks for the warning! 🙂

    • Glad you agree with me, though I know you could’ve written a MUCH better review! You know, I wouldn’t have minded so much if I’d known, going in, that some of the main characters were ghosts. And delving into it a bit, I’m pretty sure she could’ve told a mesmerizing tale from the POV of the two living characters. So I see NO reason to mislead folks!

    • Thanks for agreeing with me, Professor. It would have been way different if I’d known I was reading a ghost story upfront. But finding out that a character you’ve been following, one you’ve grown to like, isn’t even fictionally alive…well, yes, it’s frustrating and horrid!

  4. No, but I read a book like this called Me and Emma, about two young sisters, one of whom suffers abuse, and I absolutely was riveted and stunned by the ending. My daughter used to read Picoult and loved her work. I think I read one of her books, but found it dry. She always seems to tap into timely issues and creates situations that make you think.

    • Sadly, Pat, I did like the characters in this one (well, mostly!). It’s just a shock to the system to learn at the end that you’ve been following along with DEAD people, ha!

  5. Definitely read Jeannette Wells…I started with Glass Castle which is a memoir of growing up with an unusual family. She’s a great writer. I liked Picoult’s early books but then she seemed to go more and more to paranormal which I don’t enjoy so I stopped reading her. You might try one of her first few books.

  6. I like Jodi Picoult’s books told in the different narratives.
    I’ve not read that one, but my favorite by her is THE STORY TELLER.
    —our time is precious. If I don’t like a book, I don’t finish it. That’s that.


    • I’m a hopeless optimist, Kim. I just keep telling myself, It’s gonna get better; just give the author a chance. Sometimes I get disappointed, and this time, I did. At least disappointment’s not usually fatal. xoxo

  7. Pingback: Proven Wrong | Musings by an ND Domer's Mom

  8. Debbie, I’ve heard of this author, but never read any of her books. I actually don’t get to read any current authors due to not having time (although I have managed to fit Rick Bragg in and one other). I think it is ludicrous to stick ghosts in like that. I also think it’s vastly unfair that authors who break through with a good book can seem to get other less worthy things published.

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