Is it Crass for Writers to Worry About Pleasing Their Readers?
By Katrin Schumann
I was on the phone in my office, scanning my bookshelves and chatting when my eye stopped on Leo Benedictus' book THE AFTERPARTY. He's a British writer, not well known in the US. I admire him for his witty, powerful, original writing; I aspire to that kind of authority combined with fun in my own writing.
"Ah, yes," I thought. "Leo with the great last name. Wonder what you're up to?"
I went online. On his website he includes a section called "opinions," and after clicking on social kisses (loved his take on who, how and when), I clicked on desire and technique. To be honest, I thought it would involve sex and I was just a bit curious. What he actually posted was a short piece on writing that surprised me.
"Novelists who do not shape their work to be liked are seen as purer and better artists. But they are neither," he writes. "Because in a novel, failing to please readers is poor technique." That stopped me right in my tracks.
WORD. And yet...
There's a pervasive and entrenched bias in the literary community against writing for readers. We write for ourselves, and if we don't, then we're being (pick your poison):
a) crass marketeers
b) boring and uninspired
I'd wrongly made the assumption that when writing, Benedictus doesn't think about--let alone worry about--the reader. His book is sort of anarchic; it's a book within a book. It pushes the envelope. It's a romp. But it's also carefully constructed; a complex and well-oiled machine. It's considered, clear-eyed. It makes sense to me that this is because he's not writing just to please himself, but wants to bring the reader along with him.
In my nonfiction classes, I state with impunity that one of our main goals in publishing is to reach readers. I always start with this because invariably a few students insist that they don't really care that much about the reader; their story has a certain purity of purpose, uncorrupted by the expectations of readers.
This is puzzling to me. Why do we spent years laboring on book projects without any guarantee of "success"? Because we want to communicate. We want to reach others. We want to find readers.
Whenever I start writing a nonfiction book, or coaching others, I'm consciously making the leap from the internal to external, from an idea germinating quietly inside me to an actual product that will make it into readers' hands. If I can't get readers to understand what I'm trying to say, to see the benefits of reading this book, then what is the point? The reader is in my mind throughout the entire process of developing the book and writing it.
In fiction, it's a bit different. "A gripping story told clearly, so the reader understands what’s happening, is the primary goal," writes Hugh Howey. But we often begin writing when we still have no real idea of what it is we're trying to say. In a wonderful Lit Hub essay called Writers, Protect Your Inner Life, Lan Samantha Chang writes, "We make art about what we cannot understand through any other method... the writer has given us this piece of his interior and there is frequently no explanation, nothing to be said about it. Often, the writer himself has very little idea of what he has created." It's the process of writing that clarifies our themes for us.
In writing fiction, there's an interplay between artistic impulse (which is, at least initially, self absorbed and a bit exclusionary) and the desire to tell a good story. We start wrapped up in our own obsessions, but (hopefully!) we end with something that invites others in. That perhaps even seeks to please.
"A novelist who wants to please their readers may cut forty pages about loneliness for fear that no one will stay interested that long," writes Leo. "A novelist who wants to express their loneliness to its full extent may put them back. The same novelist can be each at different times."
That, I think is key: writers are complex beings (with a variety of goals), trying to accomplish complex tasks, while finding readers in the process. And we can't find our readers unless we care about and respect them.
Katrin Schumann is the author of the novel The Forgotten Hours (Lake Union, 2019), and numerous nonfiction titles. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets, and she has a regular column on GrubWrites. Katrin can also be found at katrinschumann.com, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.See other articles by Katrin Schumann