The writer and the reader

I’ve been thinking about a blog post by Molly O’Neill, who is an Assistant Editor at Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins. Her post was inspired by Janet Reid of FinePrint Literary Management, who was in turn inspired by a Slate article.

This same Slate article has had me thinking for the past couple of weeks. It was written by Joanna Smith Rakoff, whose one-time job at Harold Ober and Associates was apparently to ensure that somebody, somewhere, was reading the fan mail that J.D. Salinger didn’t want to see.

These posts play into a lot of conversations I’ve been having lately, with other writers, about the immediate accessibility provided by social media.

Molly was speaking specifically of teen writing, what happens when a reader—in this case a teen reader, and for this reason perhaps more emotionally charged—strongly identifies with a writer’s words and seeks a personal audience with the author. She asks, “what’s an author to do when that same sense of immediacy that we extol in writing for teens comes through in a reader’s communications—when they email/blog comment/Facebook message/MySpace post/Tweet/etc, etc. an author offering their own story, brimming with vulnerability and then desperately—or even just hopefully—await an answer, a meaningful response, a deeper connection, a promise that there’s a way past whatever moment they’re in the midst of living? And how does an author begin to shoulder that responsibility, that hunger, that need on the part of readers, somewhere in the midst of the other work of being a writer?”

I would argue that aside from the degree of intensity this holds true for any writer in any form of storytelling. I am known today primarily as a writer of adult nonfiction, primarily in periodicals, and I’ve never been particularly famous. But I’ve been hearing from readers—adoring, irate or otherwise—for thirty years. I have been the butt of extremely personal attacks, some of them in print. Once, years ago, my family even had to endure a particularly ardent young fan who found out where I lived, and lurked, watching, from a nearby park. That’s something I still don’t like to think about.

Molly asks how publishing industry professionals can help equip writers for a potential deluge of personal reaction. Janet Reid, speaking specifically about young writers, warned, “they will hear everything said, no filter available.”

In some cases—such as in the Salinger example—the publishing business will indeed provide a filter. As a publisher or editor I have sometimes even provided that filter (when I didn’t see any need to share ignorant comment with a valued writer). I can’t speak of how effectively Salinger avoided the world, but the point is that he did. An author who has withdrawn from his readers to that extent would simply not participate in social media. But unless the phone line is disconnected, unless the writer never goes for a walk and has hired help to do the shopping, there has never been an effective filter.

I believe that we tend to over-think the shininess of social media—just for starters, I can’t for the life of me see a difference between a blog and a newspaper column, or between blog comments and letters to the editor. I don’t think that much has changed. As a young reader I wrote to a few authors (one even wrote back). As a writer, the reader’s personal reaction made its way to me in written letters, or even in check-out aisles. The volume of feedback has increased, to be sure. Readers have responded to this new accessibility.

A friend of mine, a popular writer of stories for young adults, recently began to blog, and to participate in other social media venues. One of the first bits of feedback—in this case via Twitter—was from a librarian who lived far away and who just wanted to tell him how much she had enjoyed one of his stories. For that instant they touched, reader and writer, and the reader’s personal stake in that story was immeasurably heightened.

How can the bad, or even the uncomfortable, communications ever outweigh these powerful moments of validation? The relationship between writer and reader is too complex for a simple definition, but if I heard only the good, and never the angry or the troubled, I would never truly understand the nature of what I do.

It is perfectly understandable that editors and agents worry about this subject. In this reality of publishing they have always mentored and prepared beginning authors. Perhaps a certain degree of filtering is even necessary (I would be hypocritical to say otherwise, when I’ve done it myself). But the key lies in Molly’s question, how can these professionals prepare the writer for this? Because dealing with reader feedback is essential to the writer’s toolbox. It is simply a skill that a writer has developed, or else he or she is not a viable storyteller. I would take that one step farther, and say that understanding how one’s words are interpreted—not just by reviewers, but in the deeply personal, inner world of each reader—is vital to the growth of the storyteller.

Each writer will find his or her own level of comfort, and will instinctively engage only to that level. I once had letterhead, with my name and no return address; I now stand behind an electronic version of exactly the same thing.

The passion of readers has not changed. Sometimes, when the reader is too troubled, the best response is silence—or at best polite and careful acknowledgement or encouragement. It is seldom wise to engage too deeply. Most often, however, the reader just wants to tell you that you’ve touched them through similarity in experience. For that reason there is usually no more eloquent a response than a simple “thank you.” And that’s never changed. Only the means of communication have changed. The writer who does not learn to accept the impact of his or her story, learn to shoulder that responsibility, will tell no more stories. That’s too bad, but that’s the way it works.

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  1. Posted March 4, 2010 at 10:23 AM | Permalink

    It may sound presumptuous, but I detect in this piece – in which you write that you are ‘known primarily as a writer of adult non-fiction’ – a voice longing to emerge as a creative writer. I loved the way you handled your subject here; and wouldn’t it be great to read a little of your fiction. Frank

  2. Bruce
    Posted March 4, 2010 at 8:03 PM | Permalink

    Frank, thank you so much for your kind comments. Over the past 35 years I’ve written every sort of thing you can imagine, from ad copy to pulp fiction to academic history. I’ve been hoping to find some old fiction to post to the Solid Gold Box section of this site, but no luck so far… Yet over time I’ve come to believe that writing is writing; I do my best to understand the audience I wish to reach, and then work as lyrically and creatively as I can. If it truly reaches the intended audience, big or small, I am delighted!

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Bruce Wishart
Whimsies. Sometimes about writing.
Sometimes about folklore. Sometimes
about the sea, or life on the coast.
And sometimes not.