Anticipating reader sloth

If there’s one commonality between what I’ve learned through my studies in my graduate degrees and my personal experiences as a writer it’s that very few people read well. With care, with precision, with enough time and effort to hold the text in line and by the hand as one advances from Point A to Point B to Point C. What is unfortunately far more common is reading Point A, making all sorts of assumptions, and then misreading Point B before completely flubbing the purpose of Point C. A result of our increasingly brief attention spans, perhaps, or a consequence of having – and therefore expecting – easy answers easily accessed at all times. Whatever the reasons involved, poor reading is something every writer will have to deal with.

The obvious response is of course to write with as much clarity as possible. In doing so though, how much style is one willing to sacrifice? And how much subtlety? Then there is the purposive employment of hidden meanings and (of a sort) subterfuge, facets that the always interesting Nick Cody and I have both discussed on these pages (see especially here and here). Yet even within such considerations any given writer will likely strive to pen their works in a way that can be understood, possibly aiming for a generally educated audience, or a specifically oriented readership – yet aiming and writing with them in mind.

However careful one is though misreadings are inevitable, and we need to admit that. Many elements factor into how a piece is taken: issues of reader age, gender, sociohistorical background, economic class, personal preferences, characteristics, traits (a good deal of which are determined genetically), as well as overall mood, current emotional state, the myriad details of life that hover over every day, and on and on. There is no conceivable way anyone could account for all of that when crafting a written work. How many readers can we expect to be willing to fight through that morass? To make the extraordinary efforts required to take words purely for what they are on the page within the context? Not a great number, I would think. It’s an issue of busyness and time, yes, but also one of awareness and gumption, and for better or worse the digital age lauds busyness as greatly as it generates it, while not in any sense rewarding either awareness or gumption. Our device founded and centered lifestyles are not machine-systems for churning out thoughtfulness. Regardless then of caution, transparency, and accuracy, misunderstandings seem the rule rather than the exception.

Balance and acceptance: As writers is that our path through this thicket? Writing in a clear and accessible manner but admitting to oneself that some readers will take it the wrong way, and then swallowing that bitter pill? That is probably the most sensible response. Another option, one embraced by notoriously self-confident and dismissive geniuses like Friedrich Nietzsche or arrived at through a kind of default by equally self-confident but less dismissive geniuses such as Martin Heidegger, is simply not to care overmuch. Write your way, for the sake of your work, and let everything else hang. There is something admirable about this other choice, but also something terribly self-damning. Nietzsche wanted to be read, and he wanted to be understood, but only by the right sort. Maybe as a result of that – or who knows? maybe simply as a result of the dense webs of random connections and interrelated cause-effect equations we all fall into at birth – he was essentially unread during his lifetime and for decades after it. His sister is probably the one who secured his legacy, and she did it primarily via Nazism and its antecedent currents. What a horrid road to fame.

Fame? Nothing. Death warmly greets us all and posthumous fame is about as comforting as a pair of shorts when it’s -25C outside. That other option, the latter, is attractive though, isn’t it? It fascinates, it romanticizes, and of all the creative arts it seems to fit writing particularly well. The first or the second? It’s a decision every writer will have to make, chosen at the outset of a project and then stuck with. I wonder how I’ll approach my next book.


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