October 12, 2014
There’s an anecdote about James Joyce that says he pointed at an unknown tradesman seated on some steps in Dublin and said he wrote Ulysses for that guy.
Updike, famously: “When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas. I think of the books on library shelves, without their jackets, years old, and a countryish teenaged boy finding them, and having them speak to him.”
Nabokov’s ideal reader? Well, himself: “Of course, as you have guessed, the good reader is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense.... Since the master artist used his imagination in creating his book, it is natural and fair that the consumer of a book should use his imagination too.”
Even those pretending to write into a void see the void as occasion to narrate—the bittersweet feeling of recalling Christmas Day while taking down February’s brittle tree.
Trying to imagine potential readers makes me think instead of marketers, legions of them, gathering on suburban platforms, arrowing into the city on flight after flight of trains that rain into the heart of the business district. Having gained the height of flaring towers, they harvest personal information, crunch data, and merge and purge consumers by demographics, all to serve the next campaign. Their objective is disheartening. Imagine being ordered to capture all those who hate reading, such as a grad student in English who, despite rearranging his life to study books, becomes a pedant and bore on his favorite theory that no one should ever read; who says that in the way other people read books, he’s read a single short story 100 times that no one in the world understands the way he does, and which he suspects the dead author wrote especially for him.
Or what about a potential audience of literary readers who value only the “super-contemporary,” what Francine Prose calls, in Reading Like a Writer, “the dot at the end of the long, glorious, complex sentence in which literature has been written”? What of those who think writing never got anywhere after Milton?
(The worst of these entrenched views was revealed in a Q & A following one of our program readings, where an old man in the auditorium interrogated our visitor, a Quite Famous Author, with a series of loaded questions about which books she taught her writing students. Finally he came out with it, angrily: “You really believe there’s any better writer than Mark Twain?” She calmly said she could think of many, actually, and when confronted again later by the same guy, during her signing, she said she only taught books by relatively young living writers, since those were the only ones her young students could connect with. I continued to serve punch and supermarket cookies, smiling, smiling.)
Rather than writing for a specific reader, I think I’d rather write books that would get read at certain times. I’d be happy to be read, for instance, at the end of a long dull administrative day, during a soak in a bubble bath with a glass of bourbon and the temptation of sudoku always at hand.
I’d be pleased to be read on breaks stolen from evil corporate overlords who pay generous salaries, subsidize their fine cafeteria, provide stock options to employees, and give often to charities.
I’d be tickled to be read in some little diner over a hot fudge sundae—nuts and whipped cream if that’s your thing—or in a fast food place over a hamburger meal, or even in a parked car through a bag of Extra Crispy Cheetos, yellow fingerprints marking the turned page. But not over asparagus. That’s asking too much. And certainly not over an unctuous bœuf bourguignon finished with a tablespoon of impudent red currant jelly. Slide those greedy attention-grabbing plates to the side; I pair with Cabernet too.
I’d be thrilled to be read in a foreign city while the rain hammers down, no money left but the hostel paid for, warm, comfortable, and quiet. Or on a train headed for something big and uncertain, a tickle in the pit of the stomach, through mustardy fields of rapeseed or sunflowers to the horizon, big heads all turned obediently to the same single point in the boundless sky.
I’d be honored to be read during downtime in the military, after the vague excitement of considering what 60 years as a veteran might bring, starting as soon as administratively possible.
I’d be touched if read while a baby sleeps, blessedly, before the sleep monster comes for the rest of the house; read to someone you’re aging with, and through, and by, who’s puttering in the next room and knows you well enough to know that when you say, “Listen to this,” you’re not about to enthuse over another advertised sale; read in that silent hour alone with the lamp, looking for connections, while a blood moon hangs over the wall and curious eyes glow in the weeds out there.
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