At a workshop I once attended in Berkeley a young writer read a touching story about a man whose wife of nine years up and left him one day, right out of the blue.
The story opened the moment after the wife left, as she slammed the door on the way out. First the man wept, then he drank, then he got together with friends and tried to put his life back together. It ended with the man going out on a date a few weeks after the divorce with his former wife's sister, reconciled to the loss of his wife, hopeful that there is life after a marital breakup.
The writer had a lot of talent: The story showed a lot of insight, was charged with emotion, and the prose was clean and crisp.
During the critical discussion of the story, members of the workshop pointed out that since the reader never saw the wife, there was no objective correlative for the man's grief. Objective correlative is a technical term coined by T. S. Eliot to describe the necessity for the reader to see and experience the action that evokes an emotional reaction in a story. In other words, if a character is mad be cause he was insulted, the writer should describe the incident in which the character is insulted. In the case of this story, since we never see the protagonist's wife, we can't identify with his feelings of loss. Perhaps if we had met her and had seen her interacting with the protagonist we would have been able to feel his grief. The way the author had written it, we could feel sorry for the character because he was grieving, but we could not feel the grief itself. We urged the author to begin the story a little earlier in the lives of these characters for that purpose.
The author was not in the least receptive to this criticism.
She thought those of us who agreed with it did not understand what her authorial intent was in this story, and in fact we were looking at the act of creating backward. You see, she said, she was writing not about the relationship, but about grief, and was presenting the actions, thoughts, and feelings of the character in a truthful way to the best of her ability. She said she had documented exactly how he overcame his grief, which was what she wanted to do, and that was what she did. It was our job as readers to accept what she had written on its own terms. She was not interested in the least, she said, in "hooking her reader" or enticing him or her into the story world, in creating emotional touchstones to connect the reader to the story, or in getting the reader to identify with her characters or their problems. In other words, she was creating something complete and true to its theme (which interested her), and if it didn't interest the reader, well, too bad for the reader.
This author held to the author is sovereign view of fiction writing. She was an ego-writer, of the reader-be-damned school of fiction. In the fifteen years since this incident occurred I've encountered hundreds of adherents to the reader-be-damned school.
You might wonder how you can be a writer if your ego isn't in your writing. Aren't all damn good novelists egomaniacs of some kind?
Well, yeah, of course they are. But the ones who succeed are writing for readers. Let's call them reader-writers, to distinguish them from ego-writers. To be a fiction writer, you have to, as Trol-lope said, "lay your own identity aside."
At a recent California Writers Club conference, I met an extraordinary writer in her eighties. She was white-haired, wore thick-
rimmed glasses, and flashed a big-yellow-toothed grin. She told me she'd started writing when she was thirty-five. She'd always had the itch, she said, and then one fine day her beer-truck driving husband left her with four kids, the bills unpaid, and nothing but air in the refrigerator.
She figured she could make it as a fry cook or a housekeeper, but she had an infected big toe that kept her off her feet. Her neighbor had a typewriter. She borrowed it and started knocking out confession stories.
In her career she had sold, she said, 415 confession stories, 250 others to "everyone from Cosmo on down," and 41 novels. At the moment she had four books under contract, three paperback original romances and a hardcover book on gardening.
I asked her what her secret of success was. She said it was simple enough. "When I write, I think of my reader sitting in an easy chair, bone weary after a hard day's work. My job is to make sure she stays in that chair until the book is done, and to do that I write as strong as I can, using every trick I know."
This is how a reader-writer thinks. Please your reader, not your ego.
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