who’s your ideal reader?—a tutorial with Charlton Heston

i read an incredibly entertaining, sharp (as usual) post by roxane gay on the movie “rise of planet of the apes“, which i saw a few days ago. here is what i thought after i read her review (which contains serious spoilers):

“loved your review but why am i reading this now before losing an evening in the cinema and sacrificing it to james franco’s ‘delicate features’? the guy really does suck. he’s a cross between a hipster and a scientist, some new form of monstrosity. i hear he writes. is that what he wrote, palo alto? perhaps his writing is better than his acting? he already nearly destroyed spider man for me. but this is the effect of your writing that it brings out the anger that i didnt even know i had. this is at least therapeutic and at best cathartic – thank you.”

i’m probably an unlikely reader for roxane gay’s non-fiction even though i like her style, her words, her thinking. i consider myself unlikely because i don’t share much of the cultural background that leaks out of her (non-fiction) writing & most of the comments that she receives from others don’t speak to me (i might like or dislike them but i don’t know what to say to them). her writing on the other hand always solicits a response from me—a response that enriches me in return: best of all worlds for a reader-writer, innit?

so, where does my recent interest in an “ideal reader” come from? here’s the story:

— amanda deo of thunderclap press wrote a very honest, direct post in which she asked if i (everyone really, she didn’t ask just me, it was a question for the entire internet) would still write if nobody ever read me. fascinating question (and great comments by others). i replied—at length:

“i’m not going to publicly talk about my orgasms…& i think ryan’s comparison is spot on, including the extension, implied or not, that sex is, well, more than masturbation. also more complicated, more involved, more complex in every way. which doesn’t stop anyone from having it. in fact, who doesn’t like a challenge—

…but to come back to writing: i used to publish under a pseudonym because i felt very insecure about the quality of my work. i came out because of the moderate success in the form of feedback from readers (other than my loved ones & friends). if i hadn’t received this feedback or if it had been overwhelmingly cool/negative, i would probably have stopped. it follows that i’m a terrible sucker for success & (positive) feedback: as in the rest of my life. “how you do anything is how you do everything,” says cheri huber

…so i totally write for readers, not just for myself. otherwise i’d do what i’ve done for decades: write in my head (which is excellent practice btw). having said that, i write for myself in the first place, try to please myself first of all. which is a permanent challenge since my wife’s both an editor and my first reader & she’s quite (suitably) critical.

but then who is the ideal reader? — i’ve got a feeling i should know more about my “target group” to use a marketing term. this makes me think of stephen king, who addresses his reader as “dear constant reader”; he got a meta dialog going while his “constant readers” wait for the next book to come out…perhaps ”great storytelling comes with great audiences”. i don’t really care if this “great” audience is small, large or global. but it’s out there, it consists of the people who feel enriched by my stories & i’m writing for you, too, folks.”

this was great. i was reading, i was responding, and though nobody was responding to my responses, i felt quite happy having discovered the question “who am i writing for” that i had never consciously pondered.

—amanda’s article actually came out of an earlier post in htmlgiant by catherine lacey, which i didn’t enjoy quite as much because i found it too slick and trying a bit too hard and because i found many of the comments fairly smug and trying too hard…

lacey made a few interesting points though & one in particular solicited yet another response from me, which i want to share:

“your point on comparing the time it takes to make it vs. the time the high from feedback lasts never occurred to me before. i suppose that i don’t believe i only write for the readers who read my work but that my work (stories, thoughts, creations, rants, whatever) join something larger, a field if you will, a secret canon of creations, a tapestry woven by everyone who creates—writers and non-writers. the pleasure to have contributed to that and have done it with others, nameless ones, but many, many others, does last a lifetime, i believe. this may of course be highfalutin’ hokey, but there, i’ve said it and you’ve read it.”

constant readers of this blog will recognise one of my all-time favorite concepts, the living field (cp. this interview).

—okay, you’re done here. now, shall we have a conversation, or do you want to pick one (or more) of these wonderful things:

… my bonus question that i’m really, really curious about:

who do you think is your target group, your ideal reader?
how does he look like, or is it a she? what’s s/he looking for?

8 thoughts on “who’s your ideal reader?—a tutorial with Charlton Heston

  1. Hello Marcus. Wonderful. I’m not sure I’m smart enough to have a smart response, in fact, I’m sure I’m not, but this issue came up in a fiction workshop I was taking recently and I wanted to say something, felt moved. The workshop leader had been encouraging us to write for ourselves, and yes, how could one argue. But I did bother to insert myself and ask about about the usefulness of considering the audience beyond the self. I had heard from another earlier workshop teacher something to the effect of: Pick your ideal audience – maybe even just a person or two – and imagine writing for them. So I said to this most recent workshop leader, I’m wondering about the idea of “dear reader” or “gentle reader” when one rights. (Yes, antiquated phrasing.) The leader said she might be too easy on herself if she thought in this manner, the writing would not measure up to her standards, perhaps.  Could she have been thinking along the lines of something King describes, like that reader is perhaps somewhat too nonjudgmentally eager? But then is that so bad, really? Maybe not for first drafts, perhaps. For those of us who are a bit reluctant for whatever reason, there can perhaps be little harm in this and in fact, I really like what King says above. Thanks for writing this, Marcus.

    • hi meg, thanks for coming out to play! i love(d) that book by king “on writing”, when i first read it almost ten years ago. i must read it again. i always assumed his relationship with the reader was strengthening for both sides—perhaps something particularly useful in king’s genre… personally, i’m probably making myself too dependent on readers anyway, since i publish a flash in a flash…different with first drafts. i’m following the general rule not to show first drafts to anyone: i’ve found out that my unconscious at least will retract when i break this rule, and the creative flow will cease. — i’ve always thought that i need to be as nice as possible to my creative faculties. i don’t believe in standards, but in soul, i suppose. and souls don’t like to be measured or weighed. 

      in the end, we all get the readers we deserve and vice versa… 

  2. This is such a fabulous, modern, social way of talking about it Marcus (and Meg), and I can identify with it easily with the comments I make on blogs for my students and friends. Thanks!  

    I’m also inspired by how differently others have put it, and these days, as I am back photographing, I’m thinking of my hero Walker Evans and his statement that he was trying to be “literate, authoritative, transcendent”, and how this way of putting it is so 1920’s modernist, ambitious, and elegant, and how it challenges us today. 

    The transcendent part I like especially when I think of our work being preserved, passed on, to be read or viewed by others long after we are gone.  

    It is certainly a great pleasure to receive support in this lifetime, and I like your figure of working alone and then being drawn out and learning how with one’s art to be a public person.  

    I think it is also nice to think about working for those not even born yet, too, for as public people our work is taken up, preserved, and transformed. 

    I like this business of giving, or this giving up, and I do not at all mean to be paternalistic when I think of how this passing along is something we do when raising children and young people, giving without expecting anything back in return.  

    We give and hope that those that follow us might do something with it, but hope is about as far as we are allowed (practically as well as ethically), and that’s pretty cool when you think of it, especially as the competition for the future’s attention is so fierce, infinite really, and anything we might do will mostly be lost, and that’s basically fine, too, as others will build on it and do it better. 

    Good for them!

    • thanks bruce, i especially like “anything we might do will mostly be lost, and that’s basically fine, too, as others will build on it and do it better.” so true, whatever happens. must pass the time till then, of course, as good as we can.

      the “ideal reader” or “ideal viewer” then could be anyone who values the gift and makes something of it.

  3. Not to skip by Evans, 

    … by being literate I think he meant paying full attention to (pictorial, aesthetic) form, which had a special meaning in those last years of the 1920s when he built his art out of the waves of modernism 

    … by authoritative, I think he meant standing before his subjects and seeing them clearly, and a lot of that has to do with light, and we know from his negatives that he went back, saw the passing of light as an essential tool, respected its power to bring out forms: using this light, seeing it so well, that anybody standing there then, or after, would say that he “got it” brilliantly.

    … and transcendence for him, like for so many photographs, is to work with the ephemeral (and light is among the most ephemeral of all), to get used to everything passing by and all but vanishing except for some traces — architectural details, gestures, and all this detritus he collected that got so well passed off as poetry, including empty gasoline cans thrown into the trash, street signs long faded, beverage can flip tops tossed and collected in the gutter …

  4. I’ve taken a brief look at Walker Evans. He reminds me of Andrew Wyeth. I’m about to frame a 1971 Wyeth lithograph entitled “Wind from the Sea” and put it over my desk. I look forward to learning more about Evans. Sorry for the aside, Marcus. Take care.

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