Who gets to decide whether an element of a story belongs? Who gets to decide whether a detail is irrelevant to the tale being told? Is it the author, or can the reader way in as well?
This question arrives due to a recent comment over at RandomC. Commenter Bear mentioned that a certain detail was irrelevant to the story in question, while commenter Kazuo Teramoto replied that it’s up to the creator to decide that. So who’s right?
Here’s my original reply:
You know, that’s an interesting issue. As someone who is both a content creator and a (massive) content consumer, I have a unique perspective on it. Allow me to share.
You’re correct…technically. It is up to the creator to decide what belongs in a story, and they cannot be “wrong”. It’s their story, warts and all. However, what most people mean when they say something is “irrelevant to the story” (or doesn’t belong there, etc) is that the thing in question diminishes the story, and in this the reader is perfectly within their rights to criticize.
We all hold the creative arts up to a higher standard than other products. It’s not “is this providing me enough value to warrant the cost I paid?”, but rather “Is this the best work it could possibly be?” We criticize fictions for being less than it might be, no matter how much enjoyment we get! Isn’t that crazy?
But it’s valid. Just mentally translate those comments to what people are really saying and it begins to make sense. The author decides what belongs, but we all get to decide whether it worked out or not. That’s the reader’s right.
Fiction belongs to its creator, but it also belongs to everyone else. Why? Because sharing the work is an integral part of the experience, which means the reader is a participant in that work. A reader can’t truly say a piece of fiction is “wrong” – it’s not theirs in that way – but they can say it’s not for them, or that something didn’t work, or offer many other criticisms (and praise!) about the work in question.
We’re all in this together, so we all get to take part. Not the same part always, but we each have a role to play.