Writers and Readers

The semi-regular, often random, occasional, old-timey readers club

Had a lot of down time lately, spent in a place where, if anywhere in the United States, there are readers. Even here in Boulder, there are not so many. Where one used to see scenes like this one (left), now these people are holding computers or gigantic plastic coffee mugs. (I will be in Buenos Aires Friday morning, after flying all night Thursday, and will be again in a place where people read books.)

I have been considering how few people among those I know well enough to know whether or not they read do read books, or even magazines or a newspaper. Few. I have long-term acquaintances who have never read anything I’ve written. There are members of my family who have never read anything I’ve written.

Begin a sentence like this — “Have you read … ?” — and you are more often than not, if not always, you’re going to be answered in the negative, possibly amended with the phrase — “Don’t have time to read much these days,” or something with the same effect. Yet they can park in front of a computer screen for hours and at least some of that time, when they aren’t blowing away monsters or jerking off to porn, they might actually be reading. Just not books. Or magazines. Or newspapers.

We’ve been down this road before, so often actually that I can tread with eyes closed and not lose my way. This time I hope to take a slightly new course: readers from the writer’s point of view.  Since there is a diminishing pool of readers, how does a writer get them to swim his way?

For whom do you write? Do you ever or often consider your audience? Do you even want or expect an audience? Do you want readers? There are writers who claim they do not think of the audience, they do not write for the reader, and I sometimes believe them, but I think of it as masturbating in the dark. There’s nothing wrong with masturbating in the dark; it probably feels pretty good regardless. But knowing you have an audience, a partner, is more akin to making love with someone than choking the monkey. I think it feels better and ends up more enriching for everyone. Also in the writer-reader connection.

When you make love to a woman … I don’t know what it’s like to make love to a man, but suspect it is, excepting a couple of minor technicalities, no different … especially if you are in love (sex without love always seems to me like masturbating with company), you are dramatically attuned to her desires, to her needs, even before she is consciously aware of them. You do things for her, she does things for you, and the symbiosis is ethereal. Precisely like when you read a fine story, which requires as much the fine reader as the fine writer.

Ethereal symbiosis

The best writers are like the best lovers. Terrible lovers are in it for themselves — do me, do me. Fine lovers do you. Fine writers do their readers.

You do your readers by considering them, or having consideration for them; by plotting and characterizing for them. If you are not telling a story for an audience, then feel free to indulge yourself exclusively; when you need to glow in literary splendor, you can always read it back to yourself from time to time. “Damn, I’m good!”

There are a number of reasons why the best writers work so diligently, almost maddeningly, at their craft, but among these are the desire to please the reader. (There is also a strong element of trying to avoid embarrassment by offering the best one can do; I think of this often.)

Returning to the sexual analogy, the story we tell is the end point of the seduction, it is the climax. But there will be no climactic moment without attraction, without seduction, without foreplay. We are so careful with each word and each sentence and each paragraph because we want to create attraction, induce and seduce. The right word in the right place is the brushing of lips, the personal breath mingling there. The best sentence is the slow sliding of your palm upwards from her side to encounter the softest place in the known world, the side of her breast. The well-crafted paragraph is when your tongues are tangled in urgency. The perfect chapter opens her legs and releases her ultimate invitation. When you have told the best story you know in the best way you can, you come together, you and your reader, and lie aside in sweat and breathlessness.

I have been a reader like that.

I struggle to be a writer like that.


9 replies »

    • No, I found you via Court’s blog. I’m afraid I don’t have much to contribute to a literary blog, being a boring old “mommy blogger” and all. But I find you interesting, so I lurk. Hope I’m not bothering you…

      • I’m not bothered. I’m flattered you keep coming back. I was just curious. There are no rules for commenting and taking part in this odd conversation, so feel free.

  1. I wonder why our most lauded literary work is often the most difficult or the type of work that obstructs a reader’s easy pleasure?

    Is a complicated and linguistically dense construction a necessary framework for ambitious thought? Perhaps that’s what modern man thinks. Or perhaps that’s what academics think. I’m not quite ready to include that group into the overall collective “man” and they’re probably just pleased as a peach to remain unsullied by filth common as I am. After all, an academic career is better supported by a thousand page doorstop rife with complicated scheme than a slim, limber, concise, and deep parable.

    • Most lauded by whom?

      There are different audiences: academics, literature folks, genre fans, entertainment readers, and others. Many lauded works of “literature” are purchased more often than they are read, the status of having a copy on a shelf or checking out reviews and then pretending you read it. This is the bandwagon effect in literature.

      My point here about audience implies that one knows who comprises the audience he would like to have reading his work. Saying everybody is disingenuous because nothing pleases or interests everybody. If the intended audience is academic or scholarly, then a thriller mystery novel isn’t likely to get very far with that group. And obviously vice-versa.

      My audience, I think, comprises readers like me, people who like what I like to read. It is, then, easy to know how to please them and keep them interested, because it’s exactly the same thing that pleases and interests me.

      I know better than to shoot too high or too low. I’ve tried both, and wasted a lot of my time.

      • “Most lauded by whom?”

        Well, that’s very true and to the point. Are the big literary awards like the National Book Award and Pulitzer awarded by committee staffed by writers/publishers…etc? These awards would likely be academically awarded as most of those writers come up through the ranks of the university.

        But perhaps you get a different set of criteria for Hugo and Nebula winners, those Sci-Fi awards.

        And there’s the popular vote, which awards with money and shoulders up authors like Dan Brown, Nora Roberts, and Stephanie Meyers.

        Ah, too much to think about–at least for me while I’m wrestling my last chapter to the ground. I like your median approach. Have you read Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon? It’s pretty highly lauded for its literary intent, but is popular as well. It’s an easy read, quick, and the prose comes across, to me at least, as extremely clear genre prose. I don’t mean that in a bad way — just that it’s not difficult reading at all even though the identity issues that it deals with are a measure above the typical thriller fare. I think it’s an interesting compromise for an author to take. I keep reading that book because I want to know what’s happening as opposed to what’s this next sentence going to sound like.

        I mention him because he’s likely to draw in the “literary” crowd just as easily as the soccer mom looking for something to read while her kids run amok on the field.

        Would you consider the book you’re working on now to be a “romance” novel, at least loosely in the same way one can consider you having written an action/war novel, for instance?

        • I work hard and specifically to avoid being “difficult” and certainly not obtuse as a writer. Much of the effort of the way I write is to make it look smooth and accessible, while at the same time describing a scene as effectively and prettily as I can, and to make sure characters have real depth. Salter does that. The guy you lead me to lately, Haruf, writes really well in that regard. I think writers like Donlevy, Barthe, et al, are either pulling a fast one or need to get their heads out of their asses and admit they are just jacking off because it feels good.

          Excepting the Hatch trilogy, which “became” an adventure/war series in spite of me, and was written originally guided by Conrad and Greene, the other books often walk a fine genre line — One Easy Piece, a psychological thriller; My Sister’s Keeper, a psychological character study. Possessed by Shadows is simply an example of what is called mainstream literary fiction. I don’t know for sure what Only Love is going to be. It has an evident plot driven story, but at the same time displays the elements of tragic love. Romance novels are a clear and distinct form, containing necessary and evident characteristics, ditto Mysteries. Only Love my suffer in the marketplace from not being clearly definable. Most books do. Booksellers have a notorious lack of imagination and need to be told explicitly on what shelf to put what book, according to categorical genre.

          A writer has a lot of choices to make along the way.

          BTW, I am in the Denver airport killing time waiting on my flight to Dallas, then onward home to Buenos Aires, to board. I am very ready to get back to Argentina.

  2. It feels good being here again. The US, that great shopping heaven in the sky, is pleasant for a short while — the really good food, the availability of anything anytime, understanding the signs, so much efficiency … but in the end, almost all of the United States is just one huge cookie cutter suburb, as sterile as as a cuckoo.

    I’m glad you find some of these posts helpful and the analogy got to you enough to give it to Jack.

    Are you stopping by Buenos Aires on your way to Oz, or back?