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…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.