Thursday, 27 October 2011

A Series of Unfocused Paragraphs on the Problem of Bastard Readers

Let’s forgive our readers. Forgive them deeply, in the most pious Christian sense of the word. They put up with so much venal wicked bastardy from us these days. Frankly, they’re saints. But beware, because they’re also watching us closely, meat cleavers in hand.

Because we’re desperate. We’re desperate to push the boundaries, take it to the edge, get way out there, touch with our ice-cold fingers the tips of the ORIGINAL. So we write and write, read and read, sucking up as much “daring new” fiction as possible before we retire at our blank screens, hitting whatever keys our fingers land on. We call this “writing.”

And we’re struggling. Writers still cling to their grand old notions: Franzenean epics placing the reader right at the moral heart of our nation, wrestling with our collective struggle as people. Nonsense. In a world that caters to the individual—we who are the most unique cogs in this collective of individuals—does a book have the right to represent a people? Because now, we’re so choosy, we simply will not tolerate a book that does not speak to us, directly, us, INSERT NAME HERE. We are not a people anymore, we are a person. We are me, me, and not forgetting me! We pick up our books, open them and hear: “Hello, Tim! How are you? You’ll love this for the first forty pages, then find the middle part a little meh, then leave it on your desk for two months.”

So let’s cut to the chase. What do you WANT? Reader? Come on! What? You don’t know? You have too much choice, you’re scared? You want someone to choose for you? You want believable characters, gripping plots, happy endings? When asked, most readers who aren’t writers, i.e. the people who don’t read us, crave these things like food.

This positions us, writers on the margins, in the shadowy wilderness of journals and websites (however formidable and intelligent), in an awkward place. See, we’re never sure who we’re writing for. When we discover a new form (let’s say, for argument’s sake, a new form exists) and we craft a story that embeds its meaning in its design—structure, style, shifts narrative position—where is that elusive reader, that deep close reader we have wet dreams about, who comes to unravel our story for us? Sure, we might pretend we’re writing for the disillusioned, the lonely, the hopeless, but do our audiences even exist?

I have come to accept, whenever I conduct an experiment with form, I am writing solely for the pleasure of discovery, for my own gratification and amusement, then after this, writers. Sure, I might sneak in a non-writer from time to time, but writers are my core audience. And since so many readers now read Catcher in the Rye, start a blog and write at varying levels of automatic competence, the world is splitting down two lines: those who read and write, and those who don’t.

So because our audience are writers, this puts avant-garde fiction in pole position. Our readers are one step ahead. They’ve read the writing blogs. They know about split infinitives and framing devices. While we’ve been sitting in our dens, dreaming up intricate labyrinths of complexity, they’ve been reading Stephen King’s On Writing. There’s no room for slackness, because if we drop our game, the reader will rise up and hack us to pieces.

This is a call for experimentation through fear. Smash up the tedious orthodoxies of literary acceptability, because someone is right behind you, waiting to smash up your tedious orthodoxies. There has never been a crazier, scarier time to go absolutely crazy on paper, to do ANYTHING. Take your imagination to the wildest stops imaginable. But please, be clever about it. This brave new world accepts no imitations.

This post originally appeared on this blog, but three days later it was a guest blog at Barge Press, i.e. here.


  1. Great post. "Be authentic" is the most valuable advice I recently received. The 'average' reader wants to be entertained and transported from everyday life and not have to really think about what they are reading. I applaud your candor on 'audience' which you clearly state is other me, based on what I see, it boils down then to a stylistic pissing contest, of sorts. Less about entertaining a reader and more about flexing stylistic muscle, which is fine if you are in it for the fun. Either way, I love what you do.

  2. I think the pleasure of discovery has to win out in your pleasurably experimental case.

  3. Jennifer: That's a good way of putting it. I try to walk the line between stylistic pissing contest and maybe amusing one or two readers/writers. I've heard writers with ten or so books behind them with no idea about their audience (the sorts that don't do book signings, that is).

    Chris: I love that sentence. You seem more comfortably writing for readers, I notice . . . can you see their cute little faces?

  4. There are times I have to write for the pleasure of discovery myself, but I think I tend to be less experimental than you--or maybe just experimental in less experimental ways, which the cute little readers fail to see as experimental. And, yes, that made sense.

  5. I managed to convince some of my non-reading friends to check out my blog by writing about the strangest parts of my life- weird job interviews, an altercation with a footballer and horrendous dating scenarios. If I was to be pretentious I'd say posts that "push boundaries". But the more mainstream posts about SEO and celebs have been the ones that have been hit on the most worldwide- and a lot of these readers are probably writers already.