In International Fiction this week, we’ve been reading a (tiny) sample of Russian writing, including Nabokov’s wonderful essay, “Good Readers and Good Writers.” One of the class writing prompts was to take a page from Nabokov and consider who our ideal reader would be. It’s an eye-opening exercise that I would recommend to any writer. I realized I had a more specific experience in mind than I thought I did when I daydream/hope about how someone will feel reading my work. My thoughts are below. Tell me about your imagined reader in the comments!
My ideal reader, first and foremost, would have to be fascinated by people. This is partly just on the surface level: As a writer, I am primarily interested in people and relationships, and details like place and appearances get filled in later, if at all. Even plot is more or less a peripheral element for me; it’s a vehicle to bring people into the situation where they will reveal themselves. If my reader isn’t interested in people, he or she isn’t going to be my reader for very long.
My reader, as a person, would be sensitive and imaginative and would see reading as a collaborative exercise. I have a hard time right now gauging how overt or subtle my stories are, but I value subtlety. I like subtext. I like writing a conversation where you can hear the echo of another conversation underneath in what isn’t being said, and it takes a sensitive writer and reader to know how to approach such a conversation so that those echoes materialize. I like to explore gestures. I don’t often tell as much as I maybe should about my characters’ clothing or hair or eye color, but I like my reader to know how they move, because I think body language is the easiest way to read someone’s mind. Maybe that’s because I am a fidgeter with a wide range of tics. My reader would have the sustained imagination to see my character in movement throughout the story, and the sensitivity to see the shifts of emotion in the changes in gesture and the cues in conversation. I would want my reader to temporarily become my characters (rather than relate to them), which is why it would be important for my reader to have a spirit of collaboration. It would ideally be almost like an actor doing a study of a character he or she was going to play, getting rid of his or her innate patterns and taking on a new persona to understand a life through a different lens.
The other reason I want my reader to love people is that I want him or her to be so consumed that “person-ness” goes beyond humanity. I want my reader to leave my writing thinking of my story as a kind of person. I don’t mean thinking of the characters as “real,” although that is an element of what I’m envisioning. I think a really good, well-written story ends up having a mood and an idea and a manner of expression that blend together and form a personality. That is why I reread books I love, and why I would want readers to come back to my stories: the story itself becomes someone you want to spend time with. I sometimes pick up particular books when I’m troubled about something, not because the content or plot has a lesson I need, or the book features a character going through my problem, but because the whole story itself has a personality of probing, curiosity, reproach, authority, encouragement, or inspiration that touches something in me.
Ray Bradbury wrote in Zen and the Art of Writing that you should read poetry every day even if you don’t understand it on any level you recognize, because your ganglion will understand. Sometimes when I am in those troubled moods I will read on autopilot and end up talking out loud to the book, saying, “yes, I know what you mean,” or, “but how do I get there?” and it’s because my ganglion is in conversation with the personality of this particular book.
When I was little, I called certain favorite books of mine “oatmeal books.” They weren’t about oatmeal, and didn’t necessarily share a theme or style, or any other characteristic other than the emotional response they brought out in me. I absolutely could not articulate what I meant by that when I was a kid, and it’s hard even now, although in my head I know precisely what I mean. The closest I can get is to compare it to that moment of resonance other people have described, of the thrum of finding a story that works so well that it makes you feel like an extension of it. As a child, I probably picked the word “oatmeal” thinking intuitively of something with warmth and weight, but it also had an element of the inevitable and necessary. When it was a winter morning, you were fundamentally entitled to a bowl of hot oatmeal, as a human being. When I hit that certain reading mood, I would have ripped the house apart to find one of my oatmeal books. I craved this kind of reading experience as intently as any physical need, and when I had it, I was enveloped in a state of complete peace and comfort, even if the book was sad, because I had connected with the exact right book. The ideal, of course, would be to create something like that.