Allegiant, Veronica Roth, and the relationship between authors and audiences

allegiant-book-cover-high-resFew pop culture events are more fraught than the end to a much-beloved series—and last week’s release of Allegiant, Veronica Roth’s anticipated conclusion to her Divergent trilogy, was no exception. The reaction to the book has been swifter and more vehement than any series-ender I’m aware of.

You’ll get no spoilers here, but suffice it to say that Allegiant ended in a way that some of its readers found less than satisfying. That’s putting it too mildly, in fact—it might be more accurate to say that some readers felt betrayed by the ending. Here’s how Bookriot put it:

This isn’t “I didn’t like this book” anger. This is “You defaced my personal property” anger. This is “You broke into my home and stole my valuables” anger.  It borders on “Annie Wilkes kidnapping Paul Sheldon and forcing him to bring Misery Chastain back to life” anger. It is personal.

Reactions varied, of course, but some of the more extreme ones got personal, and some got dangerous: like “I hate Veronica Roth and if I see her I will hurt/maim/kill her” dangerous.

The first thing to say about this is that it is never OK to threaten violence. That should go without saying.

Beyond that, the whole thing does raise some interesting questions about the ethics of the author/audience relationship, which is a complicated one. What do authors owe readers? What do readers owe authors? And what are books for, anyway?

The question of what exactly an author owes her or his audience is a difficult one. Many of the defenses of Veronica Roth have hinged on Allegiant being her book, and on her right to do whatever she wants with it. That’s a common sentiment, but it doesn’t seem quite right to me. It’s interesting that none of the YA authors who jumped to Roth’s defense—that I’m aware of—have used this argument. That’s because they know that it’s not true. Books don’t just belong to their writers; they belong to their audiences, too.

It’s an odd thing, but it’s true that a book doesn’t really become real until it’s shared with an audience. Before then, it’s just potential energy; after, it’s something powerful, with the ability to provoke reactions, create meanings. Art isn’t art until it goes out into the world and does something.

This is perhaps more true than ever today, in an age of fan fiction and fan art. YA phenomena like The Hunger GamesTwilight, The Fault in Our Stars, and Divergent become so huge because their fans make them their own, creating their own stories, visual art, and songs, which they then share on Tumblr, YouTube, and Pinterest. If Roth’s superfans responded to Allegiant as if the world Roth had created is their own property, that’s because, on some level, it is—some of them have almost as much invested in it as the author just in terms of the emotional, creative, and interpretive energy they’ve sunk into it.

That said, audiences—no matter how passionate, how invested—do owe something to authors. Here are a few for starters:

1. Try to give yourself over to whatever the author’s trying to do. This is something I believe passionately: the responsibility of the audience of any creative work is to do their best to give themselves over to what the artist is up to. Fiction is a kind of game, so play by the rules of the game the author is playing; and don’t import the rules of some other game, even it’s a game you’d rather play. Don’t go into a tragedy expecting laughs; don’t go into a comedy expecting tears; and don’t hold a work to standards of verisimilitude that it isn’t even interested in adhering to. The author may still fail by the rules of the game he or she is playing, and that’s fine—but don’t rig things from the beginning by taking your ball and going home.

2. Accept discomfort—and a host of other reactions. Happy endings are not necessary; sometimes they’re not even appropriate. Authors aren’t duty-bound to please you with every choice. That’s called pandering. When interacting with a creative work, you may feel a host of emotions—happiness, sadness, satisfaction, dissatisfaction, anger, despair. Whatever it is, let it come. It’s all part of the experience. In fact, it might be the point of the experience.

3. Share your thoughts—but no ad hominem attacks. Sharing your reactions and interpretations of a book is a necessary part of reading. Talk about books with your friends; tweet, blog; share your thoughts with the author if you wish. But please, try to center your discussion around the book. Don’t go on the attack against authors themselves—and for heaven’s sake, don’t threaten anyone with physical violence, like ever. If you find yourself hating an author because of your reaction to one of their books, it’s time to step back. Breathe. Then go back to #1 and 2, analyze why you’re feeling the way you’re feeling, and try again—focusing on the book this time.

How about an author’s responsibility to her or his audience? That one’s a little more difficult—but as I’ve said, I reject the notion that an author can do whatever they want in their books, essentially absolving authors of any responsibility whatsoever. Here are a couple of thoughts:

1. Play by your own rules. This is the corollary to #1 above. If fiction is a kind of game, and if you want audiences to give themselves over to the kind of game you’re trying to play—well, then you should know what kind of game it is you’re trying to play, and then play by those rules. What kind of genre you’re working in, compromises with verisimilitude you’re willing to accept, characterization and plot; in all these categories and more, you should know what you’re up to, and be consistent. (Veronica Roth, for her part, seems to have done this; though I haven’t yet read the book myself, I find no suggestion in the discussion surrounding Allegiant that she broke faith with her audience in any way.)

2. Accept all reader reactions. Just as audiences must accept all reactions as valid within themselves, authors should accept all reactions to their work. Delight, of course, is always preferred—but anger, disappointment, and feelings of betrayal are also valid and not always negative reactions to a creative work. (Again, Veronica Roth has done this in her reactions to the Allegiant backlash.)

3. Consider the reader. Some say that artistic integrity demands little or no consideration for audience. This is wrong. Audiences should factor into an author’s work—at every turn, she must ask herself, how will my audience react to this? What will the audience take away from this? And just as an audience’s treatment of an author should be ethical, an author’s treatment of her audience should also be ethical—informed, on some level, by kindness, by the desire to do good rather than harm. To invite the reader into the text and make them feel welcome. To give the reader something—something good—to take away from the experience of reading the book.

Of course, that’s not to say that an author is duty-bound to deliver a happy ending or even an ending that pleases her audience. This brings us to the question of what books are for—a bigger question than a single blog post can handle.

But as I was thinking about Allegiant, I was reminded of an old notion of what art is for: “To comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” Roth’s trilogy is dystopian fiction, a genre in which one might hope—ideally and perhaps unfairly—for both. The books’ portrayal of a fictional society that mirrors our own in some troubling ways has inspired wildly divergent (pun intended) reactions. Some readers are comforted. Others are disturbed.

And that’s exactly as it should be.

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