This return to the subject of writers and readers was stimulated by this from Michael Cunningham in the NYT opinion section today. This topic, considering the relationship between the writer and the reader, has taken place on this blog previously, so I do not intend to repeat all that here. It’s just that the core idea from Cunningham’s essay is something I consider with almost every line I write in a novel, or a hoped-for novel.
The major overhaul of the Arkansas novel, which started its life as a memoir called “Island in the Pines,” then converted into a novel called “Blossom,” is nearing its end; there are only some 60 or so pages to go through. It has grown in size (length, of course) by nearly one-third, and is currently 400 mss pages, 108,500 words.
This is the first sentence: Henry David Early Jr. returned to Blossom on the 11th of June, 1985, just short of twenty years after being run out of town.
Two things left me constantly astonished during this extensive revision — how many simple and trivial mistakes there were in the original mss, and, in a broader and more vital sense, how much of what a reader would want to know about this story was left out.
But that’s something for another post.
In one important sense, a writer writes for himself; that is, the writer is the first arbiter of what’s best. The writer is the first reader who must be pleased. (I refer to this as the embarrassment factor.) But it is the second reader that is really primary. Who each writer imagines his second reader to be usually defines both what and how he writes (Turow’s audience? Cunningham’s audience? Tolstoy’s audience? Pynchon’s audience? … )
After the writer doing the best work he is capable of, it’s about the reader. I thought Cunningham’s comment about baking a large, elaborate cake, then sitting at home alone to eat it, was a good analogy.
If you are a writer, especially a novel-writer, and if you happen to be so self-indulgent that you think that you are the only person one must appeal to or please, that may be at least one of the reasons your mss languishes in a drawer. If you wrote it intending to eat it all yourself, that is your privilege. You just aren’t allowed to complain when you have a stomach ache and nothing to show for it but crumbs on a plate.
This does not discount the possibility that the best cake you can bake comes out tasting like debris from a cesspool.