There are days as a fiction writer when I envy painters, musicians, comedians, stage actors, and the like. It’s because I’ve found from experience that the feedback loop for them on whether a creation or technique is on the right track is much less murky.
When I create a painting, when I’m done I can step back and visually absorb my creation as a whole . And if my ego is strong enough, I can haul it off to a local show of other artists to see how I’m doing skill-wise by visually paying attention to the paintings of the artists around me. And I can pay attention to how viewers respond when they see my work.
As a comedian or musician, if I go to try out my latest stuff live at a local venue, I’m going to know very quickly if my piece isn’t working because if I’m awful there are going to be boos and maybe even beer cans headed in my direction.
With a fiction manuscript, it’s just a stack of paper with words on it. I can make copies of it to give out with an evaluation sheet to readers, but the returned results are so much murkier than the instant feedback of clapping or boos. And round-robin critique sessions (unless very VERY well-run) too often turn into group-think or focus on the wrong things because the manuscript is being evaluated by writers instead readers.
One can read aloud one’s manuscript to an audience, but how a piece of fiction reads aloud versus how it sounds in the mind versus how it looks to the eye are three separate things. Reading aloud only covers one of the three.
And even when a fiction piece is posted online with a comments section, there’s still a buffer of words between writer and reader.
And as for writing contests, I find them rather weak for getting a full sense of how readers will respond to a work. Keep in mind that most contests are judged by those in the book industry (writers, editors, critics, agents), not readers. The criteria by which readers choose what they want to read is different.
Don’t believe me about contests? Then go stand in the book section of the nearest Costco, Wal-Mart, Target, etc. and watch people as they walk through. Not a bookstore–that’s a preselected audience of people who are into books. Talk to people who have absolutely no desire to work in the book industry. Talk to people who rarely read books at all.
What I’m getting at is that in fiction writing, there’s a lot more “noise” and “distance” to wade through in trying to evaluate the response of readers to one’s work. The interaction between artist and audience in writing is at a distance, unlike the intimacy of a stage actor and audience.
I can see why fiction writing is often compared to writing a message to shove into bottle that is thrown in the sea.
Perhaps the difficulty (the distance & noise between writer and reader) comes about because, as John Gardner pointed out, the writer is trying to induce a dream-state in the reader. The action is happening in the reader’s head as they read, not on a movie screen or on a stage, and so reactions are much much harder to pin down.