Readers and (their) writers

Nietzsche once remarked (paraphrasing) that if one cannot find true companionship among the living then one should seek it from the dead – in books. To pick up a book is to begin a journey of an unknown duration and unforeseen destination. It is to embark with a number of travel mates, some of whom might be familiar or even close (an author you have read frequently), some of whom are being met for the first time (characters), but all of whom are in the boat together with you, plying for those other shores. Here is the vast importance that a book has but which no other type of printed material does, and this value is found entirely in the affective influence carried.

A book by itself is after all very little. Some mulched trees pressed and cut, bespotted with ink and held together by glue. Simple inanimate matter, little different from a brick and usable in many of the same ways (though far more vulnerable to fire, of course). A book that is being read though – now that is another matter entirely. In the act of reading a book becomes a sorcerer, enchanting and transporting its reader as the spell unfolds. The words that the writer has so arduously labored over cease being a monologue and become a dialogue, they become dance partners for the reader into whose mind they are pouring. This is a romantic way of putting things, yes, because what we are discussing is indeed a romance. The reader has every chance to fall in and out of love with the book they hold, and the reasons for either result might be just as arbitrary as they are in every interpersonal relationship. Betrayal too is a real possibility, and the sting of it can be felt just as deeply. Expectations met, expectations not met, anticipation, excitement, disappointment; peaks and valleys. Crossroads, rounding corners, dark tunnels opening to the light, or succumbing to collapse. All of these are held in the author’s hands and none of them exist without the reader.

What is the writer’s responsibility in all this? What is anyone’s responsibility in any encounter? Decency, one would think, at the very least. Yet what does that mean for a storyteller setting out to spin their tale? Write for a target audience? Choose a genre and follow its rules or purposely disregard them? Would the latter mean upsetting the reader, or delighting her? What kind of engagement is one after? What kind of reader is one after?

That is a question that is probably asked very seldomly. The default, after all, is to go for as many readers as possible, and that goal is only natural (particularly if one is tying to make money at it). Write then for a certain type of reader? Again the issue of genre, and its concomitant rules, comes to the fore. Perhaps the questioning stops there and the answer is found – authors looking to make a living by their words are best advised to stick with what works. For others though, the more adventurous, the more artistic, the more curious, inquisitive, the search may go on. Perhaps there is a single person, an individual so admired and so intriguing, that the image of them is muse enough to dedicate one’s work to. For this person I write – and no other! That would be an interesting approach. And why not? If money is not your bag then the sky is the limit.

But if money is not your bag and the sky is the limit, then there is an even subtler methodology that one might apply: write for the sheer experience of writing. We might read for any number of reasons but primary among them will be the joy that comes from the activity; shouldn’t the same pertain to the production of books as it does to their consumption? And if it does, then what? Then, astoundingly, what ends up happening with the piece makes no difference whatsoever. Pour one’s heart out with a pen and notebook paper and promptly burn the lot, or hack it out with a keyboard and post the results for all and sundry – it is the same. And you, monsieur le littĂ©rateur, are suddenly very, very free. Now that is a writing life to be envied.

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