Who do you write for? If I asked this question out loud in a room full of writers, the answers that would come my way are guaranteed to be wildly different. “I write for no one but myself,” some would say. “I know my readers inside out. Every word I write, I write keeping them in mind,” others would pipe up. “My imaginary reader is perched on my shoulder when I write,” someone else would confess. “She/he asks me a lot of questions. My work is shaped by my imaginary reader’s criticism and praise, both of which are showered on me in generous doses.”
Betty Hafner, author of the memoir, Not Exactly Love, confesses that one of her imaginary readers is a constant quibbler who fires questions at her and forces her to take a critical look at the drafts she has written. “She is a New Yorker, I suspect,” Hafner says half-jokingly. “Maybe she is on the faculty of some MFA program. ‘What’s that cliché doing in there?’ she’d ask. Then say, ‘you have twice as many words as you need in that paragraph. You better redo that scene if you want to be taken seriously.”
Jokes apart, the imaginary reader does have tremendous power over the writer. The comments that phantom whispers in a writer’s ears are never taken lightly. “In the big picture, I write for an audience of people I’ve never met” says Lionel Shriver, one of my favorite contemporary writers. “By the final draft I’m looking for anything in the prose that’s prospectively boring to strangers.” Shriver offers a helpful pointer to fellow writers here. Since we are keen on sharing our stories with an audience (whoever they happen to be), it is a wise move to steer clear of things that could end up boring them. This is not to say that writing fiction is all about pandering to your audience’s tastes.
There is no denying the fact that most writers essentially write for themselves – and this is no crime. Books are written with the hope that there is a readership for them. But this doesn’t mean that writers cannot be fiercely protective about their right to tell the stories they feel compelled to tell. “Any writer worth his salt writes to please himself…,” Harper Lee once said. “It’s a self-exploratory operation that is endless. An exorcism of not necessarily his demons, but of his divine discontent.” You express your doubts or clarify your worldview or try to make sense of the human condition through your writing, you question accepted truths, smash taboos, expose lies or shine the spotlight on facts that the world conspires to hide. Writing is an act of perpetual discovery. Even if it may not offer us all the answers, it gives us absolute freedom to raise questions and explore the unknown.
“I started writing novels in an attempt to make sense of the city of Edinburgh, using a detective as my protagonist,” says Scottish writer Ian Rankin. “Each book hopefully adds another piece to the jigsaw….asking questions about the nation’s politics, economy, psyche, and history…and perhaps pointing towards a possible future.”
A good book helps both the writer and the reader get under the skin of life.
Whether it is a detective story or a family saga or a war novel, a powerful, well-told story leaves an indelible impact on their creators and their audience.
The transformative power of fiction can be a tough ideal to live up to. It is hard enough for a writer to meet her/his daily word count without worrying about creating life-changing works of art every minute of the day. George Orwell confessed that when he sat down to write a novel, he did not aspire to create a work of art. His initial concern was only to “get a hearing.” He chose to be a writer because he had something to say and he hoped that people would pay attention to his voice. He didn’t try to impress them win them over by offering false comfort or struggle to tailor his stories to suit their tastes. His plan of action was straightforward: respect the readers’ intelligence, draw their attention to facts, work hard to present them with the best work he could possibly create. And the rest is literary history…
Whether you pound away at the keys with an imaginary reader in mind or not, the stories you write will eventually find their way in the world. For every book, there is a reader out there.