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.
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.