Monday, February 7, 2011

The Reader's Duties

I've an essay in the autumn 2011 Meanjin, 'The Reader's Duties'.

Much is written on what writers must do.  But what about readers?  What do we owe to the text?  A sample:
‘All you have to do,’ wrote Ernest Hemingway famously in A Moveable Feast, ‘is write one true sentence.’ Old Ernest’s curt prose made this look easy, but his point was sound. This is the first duty of the author: don’t peddle in fakery or falsity.

But what of the reader’s duties? It’s easy to forget that literature is a conversation, not a monologue. If one is speaking, the other must listen. And listening is a craft, not an innate gift. An author can slave for years, and still fail to share her fidelity to life. This is not for want of talent or discipline. It is because frequently we readers cannot read. We can comprehend words, sentences, paragraphs, but we have great difficulty following arguments and stories; the details and nuances are lost.

Sometimes this is caused by psychological quirks: jealousy, for example. This is one of the vices of George Orwell’s Gordon Comstock, from the novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying. A failed ‘poet of promise’, he drunkenly lashes out at well-known authors. ‘With the fine scorn of the unpublished,’ wrote Orwell, ‘Gordon knocked down reputation after reputation.’

For ordinary audiences, whom Virginia Woolf dubbed the ‘common reader’, the vices are less personal. They stem from bad habits, rather than specific grievances. So what are the common reader’s vices?
(Photo: German Federal Archive)

3 comments:

danielsmith said...

My most common vices (and we're talking fiction here) is to skip slabs of text: Generally any long-winded description of a person or place that isn't interspersed with Doing Words, and dream sequences.

Especially dream sequences in italics.

But I just came across Elmore Leonard's "Ten rules of writing", and the last three rules make me wonder if my vice should be pushed back on the author:

8) Avoid detailed descriptions of characters
9) Same for places & things
10) Leave out the parts readers tend to skip

I guess authors and readers will match up at varying levels of worthiness.

Damon Young said...

There's a certain nineteenth-century wordiness that can kill my desire to read - until I get into the right mood. Then it actually has a seductive rhythm to it.

But, yes, impatience is the first vice I discuss in the essay. Others are vanity, pedantry, distraction.

danielsmith said...

This discussion reminded me of an old sketch:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cxedcxKD6g