I started this essay after meditating on my preference for writing and reading in environments that are beautiful, natural, majestic, cozy, and old – environments that have texture and history and meaning unto themselves, which smell like old books or pine needles in the rain, with light filtered through stained glass, or a large window overlooking trees or a stream. There’s likely a significant amount of hygge involved. Somewhere along the way, I found myself once again returning to the topic of a writer’s responsibility to a reader, and so I’ve decided to break this essay into two parts. In the first part, I focused on my experience of writing as it is rooted in my physical surroundings. In part two, I turn my attention to the potential consequences of experiencing writing in this way.
Part 2: The Reader
In so far as the writer brings more than just the literal story to the table, the reader does too. I feel like there’s a double texture born of a confluence of a writer’s experience and a reader’s. The underlying texture of the words written or told can roughly intertwine with the wordless texture of the reader’s imagination to create something beyond what the words plainly state to access what they say, and not just what they say in general, but what they say to the reader.
I imagine the reader’s thoughts as the tendril-like loops of the soft side of Velcro. They reach out and curl around the rough threads imparted by a writer as the story sinks its hooks into the reader, and temporarily binds the two together. At least, this is how I like to imagine it. When we put down a good book, we say we are “tearing” ourselves away.
But I know that not everyone does this when they read, and that not all great writing is done in environments of great meaning or beauty, in which case it is likely that when I read my own sentimentality comes crashing over the text like a sloppy, open-hearted tidal wave. Or perhaps I am right and every writer does this whether they want to or not, and their surroundings leech into their writing and give it meaning even when it isn’t beautiful or something I could ever imagine writing, granting the words something that affects me nevertheless and makes something worth reading. In some cases, it is probably the very lack of sacramentality on the part of the writer that allows readers to take a work in their own ways – this could, in fact, be the very best kind of writing, for it imposes nothing upon the reader.
This interpretation makes me nervous, since I tend to have such a guttural imagination and love to look for the tacit, intended meaning of authors, while at the same time I agree with Tolkien, who in his forward to The Fellowship of the Ring expressed his distaste for allegory. He explains that in intending a particular interpretation to be had from one’s writing, the writer exacts a kind of tyranny over the reader and limits the possibilities. The same is true in non-fiction writing that has an agenda, or in philosophical writing that is manipulative rather than expository. It is certainly true that overly saturated writing can be prohibitive, or else come across as too thick with intention to leave us comfortable enough to have our own sacramental experience.
But I don’t think the experiences of the writer and the reader have to be mutually exclusive. I don’t think it has to be a zero-sum game if it happens authentically. I don’t think that it has to be unconscious to be authentic. Augustine, in his Confessions, expertly layers in metaphors of nature and wildlife that have no overt connection to the message of the text, and yet enhance the reading experience. Whether he did that on purpose or whether it bubbled to the surface on its own doesn’t really matter. Perhaps it’s the fixation a writer has on expressing that rich body of the iceberg that tips the scale from enhancing to gratuitous and harmful.
Is there a way to have a transcendent experience of writing that doesn’t transgress on the reader? Harry Potter oozes the sentiment of its writer with a rich foundation of influence undergirding its every plot point. It traps its readers in such a totalizing way that people want to live in that world. I can’t see this as a bad thing. However, there are other works where this same trait turns manipulative, and leads readers to an obsessiveness that seems less than optimal. The difference, I think, is that one model invites readers to come in, with all of their baggage, and stay for a while. The other commands the reader’s attention and downplays the importance of what they have to bring to the table.
How do you do this well? What is the writer’s responsibility to the reader’s freedom? Should a story latch onto a reader’s consciousness and take it along for the ride, or merely offer suggestions for the reader to run with? When I write, I feel what I’m writing with my whole body. I enter the character, and I look around to see what’s there, what feels natural. And I can’t do that without taking my surroundings and all of my baggage with me. It’s reciprocal, and I don’t know if I could separate myself. I think the trick is to let myself feel what I need to feel when I write, but not try to control what the reader feels, not demand that the reader feels what I feel. In other words, I need to let myself ride the wave, not control it. I think it’s best to let the under-texture be a foundational support, lifting me as a writer up to transcend myself and my surroundings, but not let it take over and close the story off with clear, definitive boundaries.