What does an author owe their reader? And what does the reader owe to the person who wrote the novel that they pick up in the bookstore, or the supermarket, or even from a cardboard box that says, ‘Please Help Yourself’?
Do we owe each other anything?
I was studying for my final exams in my BA in English Literature, when I stole some time for myself and curled up with a murder mystery novel. This was precious time, time I should have spent doing something ‘more important’ instead. I didn’t realise it at the time, but that time was also to become the germinating idea of my doctoral thesis. I had, unknowing and randomly, selected a novel which was one of the most controversial murder mystery novels ever written – not for its content, but for breaking its contract with the reader.*
I was so incensed at the ending that I threw the book against a wall.
I am a creative writer, that is to say I write novels, but I am also a reader, too. As a writer I want the freedom to write anything I choose, but as a reader I have certain expectations about what I am reading. As a writer I want to break rules, but as a reader I need rules to guide me through the novel.
Ever since Aristotle wrote ‘The Poetics’ 2000 years ago, people have argued about what the audience, or the reader, has a right to expect from the architect of the story. Aristotle declared that a story must have a beginning, a middle and an end. The film maker Jean-Luc Goddard agreed but added the caveat ‘not necessarily in that order’.
This illustrates the problem exactly. Both writers and readers agree that there is an implied contract between them but neither of them knows what the terms are. Readers tend to want lots of clauses, writers want none.
My PhD by Practice explores the terms of this somewhat illusive reader/writer contract through the form of a mystery novel, and through deconstructing a range of literary and commercial fiction, so that an explicit contract can be devised that gives writers the freedom to create new and exciting fiction, and leave readers feeling satisfied, excited, amazed or moved, according to the book they have selected.
I am currently finishing my second year on a part time programme, which I have found extremely satisfying, despite the tribulations of the last year. I am lucky that being a creative writer has meant that I am used to spending long periods of time alone at my desk, although perhaps not quite this long or this alone. I do miss attending the PGR workshops run by PAHC and hope that they run again soon. While attending sessions over zoom is fine, what I found most inspiring about the in-person workshops was not the tutors, though they were great, or the topics, though they were useful, what was inspiring was listening to other PGRs talking about their projects, and feeling their passion for things I know nothing about. I am looking forward to more of that.
However, what I most love about being on the PGR programme is being able to read novels all day and call it something ‘more important’, instead of having to steal that time away, and read in secret.
*If you want to know the book that I was reading, it was Agatha Christie’s ‘The Murder of Roger Ackroyd’. Some readers have called it brilliant. Those readers are mostly writers.
And they are wrong.
**Spoiler Alert: the narrator dunnit.
Hazell was funded through the Manchester Metropolitan Graduate School’s Research Support Award to attend the 2021 International Conference on Narratology. You can find out more about the award and upcoming deadlines by visiting the PGR Development Moodle area.