• Email
  • Print

The Gap Between the Writer and the Reader

When I am asked that interviewer’s stock in trade, “For whom do you write?” I reply irritably, “For anyone who reads me.” The question is crass, giving away the press’s assumption that a writer, like itself, presumes “audience potential.” It seems typical of one of the anti-art tenets of commercialism: Give the public what they know. But writers—artists of all kinds—exist to break up the paving of habit and breach the railings that confine sensibility: free imaginative response to spring up like grass. We are convinced that we are able to release the vital commonality of the human psyche, our reach limited only by the measure of our talent. After all, isn’t this what we ourselves have received at the touch of other writers?

If we are not manufacturing for Mills and Boon, if we are not writing political tracts disguised as works of the imagination, we do not have in mind a shadow company of heads out there, the chat-show groupies, or the Party supporters. But for some time now, I have felt a certain unease when I snap, “Anyone who reads me.” The echo comes: “Oh really? My, my!”

I begin to think there is a question to be asked, but it is not “For whom do we write?” It is “For whom can we write?” Is there not such a thing as writer potential, perhaps? The postulate reversed? And may I dismiss that one highhandedly?

These doubts—or more accurately suggestions—have come about in my particular case less from readings in literary theory over the years than as a result of experience out there in the world among, not ordinary people—to a writer no one is ordinary—among nonliterary people. Which does not imply that they do not read, only that their reading does not take place within the culture most literature presupposes.

And here there must be a self-correction again. The suggestions are raised as much by the contradictions between literary theory—which, of course, is concerned with the reader’s perceptions as well as the writer’s conscious and subconscious intentions—and the actual experience of the man or woman on the receiving end of all these deliberations: the generic reader.

For the generic reader surely must be the one I have in mind when I answer that I write for “anyone who reads me.” More than twenty years ago, we were all entranced by or skeptical of (or both at once) the discoveries of structuralism and its analysis of our art and our relationship to the reader. The Freudian explanations that interested some of us seemed simplistic and speculative by comparison. The subconscious was ectoplasm in contrast with the precise methodology of a work such as, say, Roland Barthes’s S/Z, which had been published in 1970 on the basis of work done in the Sixties, and in which the whole emphasis of literature passed from writer to reader. Barthes’s goal was “to make the reader no longer a consumer but a producer of the text,” of “what can be read but not written.” The novel, the short story, the poem, were redefined as a “galaxy of signifiers.”1 As Richard Howard sums it up, Barthes’s conviction of reading was that “what is told is always the telling.”2 And Harry Levin wrote,

To survey his [the writer’s] writings in their totality and chart the contours of their “inner landscape” is the critical aim of current Structuralists and Phenomenologists. All of these approaches recognize, as a general principle, that every writer has his own distinctive configuration of ideas and sentiments, capacities and devices.3

Barthes’s brilliance, with its element of divine playfulness, made and makes enthralling reading—for those of us who share at least sufficient of his cultural background to gain aesthetic pleasure and revelation from his cited “signifiers.” It’s a detective game, in which the satisfaction comes from correctly interpreting the clue—elementary, for Sherlock Holmes, but not for my dear Watson. Barthes, in the structural analysis of Balzac’s novella Sarrasine, is the Sherlock Holmes who, deducing from his immensely rich cultural experience, instantly recognizes the fingerprints of one cultural reference upon another.

The reader is Watson, for whom, it may be, the “signifier” signifies nothing but itself, if there is nothing in the range of his cultural experience for it to be referred to. It is a swatch of cloth that does not match any color in his spectrum, a note that cannot be orchestrated in his ear. So that even if he is told that Balzac’s clock of the Elysée Bourbon is actually chiming a metonymic reference to the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, and from the Faubourg Saint-Honoré to the Paris of the Bourbon restoration, and then to the restoration as a “mythic place of sudden fortunes whose origins are suspect”4—there remains a blank where that reader is supposed to be reading “what is not written.” The signifier works within a closed system: it presupposes a cultural context shared by writer and reader beyond mere literacy. Without that resource the reader cannot “read” the text in Barthesian abundance.

Words are symbols that assume a shared memory,” says Borges.5 Without that memory the Faubourg Saint-Honoré is just the name of a district, it has no elegant social or intellectual associations, either as an image conjured up from visits to Paris or as a symbol described in other books, visualized in paintings. The Bourbon restoration brings no association as a “mythic place of sudden fortunes whose origins are suspect” because the reader doesn’t know the place of the Bourbon restoration in French political and social history. The polymath interchange of the arts, letters, politics, history, philosophy, taken for granted by Barthes, is not the traffic of that reader’s existence.

When one says one writes for “anyone who reads me” one must be aware that “anyone” excludes a vast number of readers who cannot “read” you or me because of concerns they do not share with us in grossly unequal societies. The Baudelairean correspondences of earlier literary theory cannot work for them, either, because “correspondence” implies the recognition of one thing in terms of another, which can occur only within the same cultural resource system. This is the case even for those of us, like me, who believe that books are not made out of other books, but out of life.

Whether we like it or not, we can be “read” only by readers who share terms of reference formed in us by our education—not merely academic but in the broadest sense of life experience: our political, economic, social, and emotional concepts, and our values derived from these: our cultural background. It remains true even of those who have put great distances between themselves and the inducted values of childhood: who have changed countries, convictions, ways of life, languages. Citizenship of the world is merely another acculturation, with its set of givens which may derive from many cultures yet in combination becomes something that is not any of them.

In our time, the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms”—so said Thomas Mann, and I quoted this as an epigraph for one of my early novels. I saw the proposition then as the destiny of my characters: now I can see that it could be applied to the destiny of literature. For if politics interprets destiny, it must be accepted that the destiny of culture cannot be separated from politics. Posing to himself the big question, “For whom do we write?” Italo Calvino wrote, “Given the division of the world into a capitalist camp, an imperialist camp and a revolutionary camp, whom is the writer writing for?”6

While—if he has any sense—refusing to write for any camp, despite his personal political loyalties (and I think there are more of these than Calvino allows), the writer certainly writes from within one of them. And the reader reads from within one. If it is not the same as that of the writer, he is presumed at least to “read” in the writer’s signifiers some relevance to his own, different cultural background.

But frequently the reader does not find equivalents, in that culture, for the writer’s referential range, because he has not “read” that range. He cannot. The signifying image, word, flashes a message that cannot be received by a different set of preconceptions.

This happens even at apparently homogeneous cultural levels. In reviews of your fiction and the interviews to which you are subjected, this process can hatch in your text like a cuckoo’s egg. What comes out is unrecognizable, but the reader, reviewer, journalist, insists that it is yours.

I experienced this when I came to the United States for the publication of a novel of mine entitled Burger’s Daughter. The daughter and other characters in the story were centered around the personality of Lionel Burger, exemplifying the phenomenon—and problem—of ideology as faith in the family of an Afrikaner who, through becoming a Communist, devotes his life and his children’s to the liberation of South Africa from apartheid.

In reviews, Burger was unfailingly referred to as a liberal: I myself was guilty of an unthinkable lack of deference to a famous talk-show personality when I contradicted his description of Burger as a noble white liberal.

He’s not a liberal, he’s a Communist,” I interrupted.

But it was no good. None of these people “read” me because in the ethos of mainstream American society a Communist could never, no matter in what country or social circumstances, be a good man. Yet it had to be acknowledged that Burger was a good man because he was a fighter against racism: therefore my signal must be that Burger was a liberal.

This is not a matter of misreading or misunderstanding. It is the substitution of one set of values for another, because the reader cannot conceive of these otherwise.

Yet not politics but class most calls into question the existence of the generic reader, the “whoever reads me.” And by class I mean to signify economics, education, and, above all, living conditions. The cultural setting from laws to latrines, from penthouse to poorhouse, traveled by jet or on foot.

I grant that the difference between the material conditions of life signified in the text and those of the reader must be extreme, and manifest in the dogged daily experience of the reader, if the writer cannot be “read” by him. And the powers of the imagination should never be underestimated. They sometimes can produce miracles of what, in the complexity of the work being read, is the most limited of referential links. As the seventeen-year-old daughter of a shop-keeper in a small mining town in Africa, I was able to “read” Remembrance of Things Past. Why? Because, although the lineage Proust invented, so faithful to that of the French noblesse, genuine and parvenue, could not “signify” much for me, the familial mores from which the book sets out, so to speak, and are there throughout—the way emotions are expressed in behavior between mother and child, the place of friendship in social relations, the exaltation of sexuality as romantic love, the regulation of daily life by meals and visits, the importance of maladies—all this was within the context of middle-class experience, however far-flung.

And, by the way, where did I get the book from? Why, from the municipal library: and I could use the library because I was white—and so for me that also was part of the middle-class experience. No black could use that library: in the concomitance of class and color a young black person of my age was thus doubly excluded from “reading” Marcel Proust: by lack of any community of cultural background and by racist material conditions….

Hermeneutic differences between writer and reader are still extreme in our world, despite the advance in technological communications. There is a layer of common culture spread thin over the worlds, first, second, and third, by satellite and cassette. The writer could count on the “signifier” Dallas or Rambo to be received correctly and fully by any reader from Iceland to Zimbabwe, and almost any other points on the map culturally remote from one another. But the breadth of this potential readership paradoxically limits the writer: producing, it would seem, something close to the generic reader, it confines the writer to a sort of primer of culture, if he expects to be “read.” It excludes signifiers that cannot be spelled out in that ABC. The writer’s expectations of wider readership have diminished in inverse proportion to the expansion of technological communications.

And the effect of extreme difference in material conditions between writer and reader remain decisive. Such differences affect profoundly the imagery, the relativity of values, the referential interpretation of events between the cultural givens of most writers and, for example, the new class of literate peasants and industrial workers, emancipated by the surplus value of leisure earned by mechanization and computerization.

Writers, longing to be “read” by anyone who reads them, from time to time attempt to overcome this in various ways. John Berger has experimented by going to live among peasants, trying to enter into their life-view as formed by their experience. He writes about their lives in a mode that signifies for us, who are not French peasants: we “read” him with all the experience we share with him of literary exoticism, of life-as-literature providing the necessary layers of reference. He doesn’t say whether the peasants read what he writes, but remarks that they are aware that he has access to something they don’t have: “another body of knowledge, a knowledge of the surrounding but distant world.”7 A recent review of one of Bobbie Ann Mason’s books sums up the general problem: “[She] writes the kind of fiction her own characters would never read.”8

In my own country, South Africa, there has been demonstrated recently a wider potential readership for writers in our population of 29 million, only 5 million of whom are white. Politically motivated, in the recognition that the encouragement of literature is part of liberation, trade unions and community groups among the black majority have set up libraries and cultural debate.

Now, I do not believe that one should be written down to. (Had I been confined in this way, I certainly never should have become a writer.) Once the love of literature ignites, it can consume many obstacles to understanding. The vocabulary grows in proportion to the skills of the writer in providing imaginative leaps. But these must land somewhere recognizable: and most writers share no assumptions with the kind of potential readership I have just described.

In Africa and many countries elsewhere, Updike’s beautifully written genre stories of preoccupation with divorces and adulteries could touch off few referential responses in readers for whom sexual and family life are determined by circumstances of law and conflict that have very little in common with those of the professional class of suburban America. Their domestic problems are children in detention, lovers fleeing the country from security police, plastic shelters demolished by the authorities and patched together again by husband and wife.

The novels of Gabriel García Marquéz, himself a socialist, presuppose an answering delight in the larger-than-life that can find little response in those whose own real experience outdoes all extremes. The marvelous fantasies of Italo Calvino require assumptions between writer and reader that are not merely a matter of sophistication.

Life is not like that for this potential readership. Books are not made of other books, for them. Furthermore, the imaginative projection of what life might be like is not like that. These texts cannot be “read” even for the aspirations they suggest.

Surely this is true of most of us who are serious writers, in and from most countries where material conditions do not remotely correspond with those of the potential reader. It is most obvious in South Africa. White writers, living as part of an overprivileged minority, are worlds away from those of a migratory miner living in a single-sex hostel, a black schoolteacher grappling with pupils who risk their lives as revolutionaries, black journalists, doctors, clerks, harassed by the police and vigilantes around their homes. The gap sometimes seems too great to reach across for even the most talented and sensitive power of empathy and imaginative projection.

I am not saying, nor do I believe, that whites cannot write about blacks, or blacks about whites. Even black writers, who share with these readers disaffection and humiliation under racist laws, generally acquire middle-class or privileged, if unconventional, styles of living and working concomitant with middle-class signifiers, as they make their way as writers.

Often it is only by a self-conscious effort of memory—using the signifiers of childhood, before they joined the elite of letters, or drawing on the collective memory of an oral tradition—that black writers can be sure they will be “read” by their readers. Freedom of movement—weekend trips, stays in hotels, choice of occupation—which punctuates the lives of many fictional characters, signifies nothing to the migratory worker whose contract does not allow him to stay on in town if he changes jobs, and whose “holiday” at the end of eighteen months down a mine is the return home to plow and sow.

The cosseted adolescent who rebels against the materialism of philistine parents signifies nothing to the child revolutionaries, an increasing phenomenon in Latin America as well as South Africa, often precociously intelligent, who have abandoned parents, never known home comforts, and taken on life and death decisions for themselves. Even among white-collar readers of this milieu, “existential anguish”—Sartre’s nausea or Freud’s discontents—finds no answering association where there is a total preoccupation with the business of survival. The Spoils of Poynton cannot be read as the apotheosis of the cult of possession by someone who has never seen such objects to covet, someone whose needs would not correspond to any attraction they are presupposed to have—that given attraction taken as read, by the writer.

You might well object: who expects a poorly educated clerk or teacher to read Henry James? But, as I have tried to illustrate, many signifiers that are commonplace, assumed, in the cultural mode of the writer find no referents in that of the potential wider readership.

What can the writer count on if she/he obstinately persists that one can write for anyone who picks up one’s book? Even the basic emotions, love, hate, fear, joy, sorrow, often find expression in a manner that has no correspondence between one code of culture and another.

The writer can count on the mythic, perhaps. On a personification of fears, for example, recognizable and surviving from the common past of the subconscious, when we were all in the cave together, when there were as yet no races, no classes, and our hairiness hid differences of color.

The prince who turns into a frog and the beetle Gregor Samsa wakes up to find himself transformed into are avatars of the fear of being changed into something monstrous, whether by the evil magic of a shaman or by psychological loss of self, that signify across all barriers, including that of time. They can be “read” by anyone, everyone. But how few of us, the writers, can hope ever to create the crystal ball in which meaning can be read, pure and absolute: it is the vessel of genius, which alone, now and then, attains universality in art.

For the rest of us, there is no meta-culture. We ought to be modest in our claims. There is no generic reader, out there. The kiss of the millennium when art shall be universal understanding shows no sign of being about to release us from our limitations.

  1. 1

    Roland Barthes, S/Z, translated by Richard Miller, preface by Richard Howard (Hill and Wang, 1974), p. 5.

  2. 2

    Richard Howard, “A Note on S/Z,” preface to S/Z by Roland Barthes, p. xi.

  3. 3

    Harry Levin, “From Obsession to Imagination: The Psychology of the Writer,” Michigan Quarterly Review, Vol. 12, No. 3 (Summer 1974), p. 190.

  4. 4

    Roland Barthes, S/Z, p. 21.

  5. 5

    Jorge Luis Borges, “The Congress,” The Book of Sand, translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni (Penguin, 1979), p. 33.

  6. 6

    Italo Calvino, “Whom Do We Write For?” The Literature Machine, translated by Patrick Creagh (Secker and Warburg, 1987), p. 86.

  7. 7

    John Berger, “An Explanation,” Pig Earth (Pantheon, 1979), p. 9.

  8. 8

    Lorrie Moore, The New York Times Book Review (December 3, 1989), review of Love Life by Bobbie Ann Mason (Harper and Row, 1989).

  • Email
  • Print