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.(Photo: German Federal Archive)
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 ‘With the fine scorn of the unpublished,’ wrote Orwell, ‘Gordon knocked down reputation after reputation.’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?