Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Who is the reader? Most discussions of the shortcomings of any text fall back on this phantom. Sometimes it’s just a substitute for “I” of course, “I think you risk loosing the reader’s interest here,” you say, in place of “Christ that seventeen page rumination on the meaning of a dormouse bored me shitless!” But still, the reader is often invoked in a purer form as a kind of generic intelligence, the everyman, the other whose tastes, sensitivities and engagement hover around every line.

It’s hard not to feel a certain antagonism toward the reader in any of his manifestations, at least it is for me. Then again it’s hard for me not to feel a certain antagonism toward life itself. He’s so picky and demanding, so unforgiving, so stupid and obdurate, so focused on everything that’s bad and so underwhelmed by your best efforts. The desire to just tell him to fuck off is ever-present. The only way you can do that though is to stop, and then you’ve given into him. Even if you never publish anything and can’t be said to be thinking of the reader in broadly demographic terms ( fun-loving lads age 18-20 will like the lesbian bit in Ibiza, but you risk loosing reader interest with the twenty three page description of the mandolin) the minute you put finger to keyboard he’s there in all his horrible, insatiable ambiguity.

Plus he’s thick. If you don’t spell it out to him, he’ll never get it. Plus he’s easily offended, get too obvious and he feels patronised. Plus he’s actually vastly smarter than you when he needs to be and can see straight through all your flimsy conceits, bits of desperate patching together and awkward narrative fumbling. Whatever you really don’t want and need him to be, he is. If you ever met him in real life you’d run a mile from this Janus-faced, hydra-headed nightmare, except now and for who-knows-how-long you’ve placed yourself under his daemonic X-ray eyes.

I assume that the reader, for everyone who writes, takes on a similar kind of shape, but like the old saw about you being a particular type of Atheist ( a Catholic atheist, or whatever) he’s kind of uniquely formless for everyone. In some basic way then, writing is an act of contention, its combative, you're fighting for something, for recognition effectively, for the readers eternally withheld approval. This isn’t to say that there aren’t pleasures in writing, in fact in those moments when you move close to the reader, when you know you’ve captured and convinced him, beguiled him, that he‘s laughing or thrilling along with you, the pleasure’s immense (the ego gratified!), as it is when you think you’ve got one over on him, you thought I’d never dig myself out of that hole did you! This is the invisible, subterranean labour of writing that is supposed to be invisible in the smooth, hermetically sealed world of the finished product.

But I have a stubborn desire to present the reader with this, I take it all too personally. I regard the reader as my enemy in lots of ways. He provokes me into starting then sits around criticising, then retires dissatisfied. He wants me to sweat and labour in order to present him with a nicely tooled, toothsome little morsel that he can kill a few dull hours with at best.

Yeah, I hate the reader. I want to lay traps for him, confuse him, drag him through the sewer then shower him in kisses, besmirch him, ruin his reputation, sneak into his house while he’s asleep and rifle through his things, fail to give him what he wants or expects and generally be a bad, a hostile employee.

Death of the author? Death to the reader more like!


roger said...

I absolutely want to read a seventeen page rumination on the meaning of a dormouse. That sounds like heaven to me.

Dominic said...

David Simon is saying some similar things in today's Grauniad...