“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.” –JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye
Writers have a complicated and ever-changing relationship with the reader. And by the reader, I mean that hypothetical audience to which you’re supposed to be writing, that intended receptacle for your wisdom, your crafted prose, the performance of your particular form of entertainment: the delivery of a story.
Some writers will tell you that the reader is paramount in their thoughts from start to finish, that even the earliest conception of their novel passes before the eyes of an imagined consumer. These writers worry all along about the reader. Will he/she be drawn to the concept? Will he/she be bored during this part of the plot? Will he/she understand or abhor my main character? Will he/she tell other readers to buy the book?
Other writers will wax on about writing as personal catharsis and expression. Above all, they’ll insist, I write for myself. If, after I’ve purged myself of my demons and inspirations, the reader can come along for a similar ride, that’s great. But I can’t think about him/her while I’m writing, it only sullies the process.
Our local university puts on Shakespeare plays every summer. The theater itself is a metal and wood structure that they assemble and disassemble every year. They set it up in an open courtyard and although it’s hooked up with proper lighting and other effects, the experience of watching a play there remains open to the stimuli outside. Birdsong, twinkling stars, a cool breeze or students laughing as they walk around the campus. The mini-Elizabethan theater is colorful and bright, an open, breathing structure that sits like an oasis between the 1960s modernist and postmodern university buildings. It seats one hundred and thirty in a typical in the round configuration but on a recent night when my husband and I were there for a performance of Macbeth, they were perhaps ten or twenty short of a full house.
The director addressed the audience before the performance. It was the first night of previews, so his mood was ebullient. Quite sincerely, he thanked everyone in attendance for their support of the play and on a broader level, the Shakespeare festival and the arts in general. This message was well-received; the mood of the audience seemed buoyed by anticipation and comradery.
And so Macbeth, which has been performed thousands (perhaps millions) of times, in thousands (perhaps millions) of venues, became boiled down to the next two hours with these actors, and this audience, on this breezy summer night. Like any good art, it became immediate and visceral, an intimate thing. And it seemed to me like a good goal for any work of art, and so I give you, worrying writers, a definition of the reader you should write for:
The one hundred or so people you would choose to fill a theater, if these were the only people who could ever read your book. And if your personal circles, both actual and virtual, aren’t that large, then perhaps imagine fifty souls you’d like your story to reach. Mentors, fellow writers, friends and relatives, book reviewers, editors, book club members, students—anyone whose opinion you value, whose tastes you admire, whose soul you’d like to reach. Let’s face it, you’ll never, ever please every anonymous reader and you shouldn’t try. The group is too varied and unpredictable; to strive for any type of broad, public acceptance seems to me unrealistic. It may be quite rewarding when someone you don’t know loves your book, but it’s much more so when it’s someone you respect already.
So imagine your own breezy summer night, your own intimate, colorfully lit theater. See the expectant faces, full of support and expectation. These are your people; this is the reader. When you’re ready, step up to the wooden stage and tell your story.
MARY VENSEL WHITE is an author and contributing editor to LitChat. Read her complete bio here.