I had a long exchange last night with a writer who defines literature in terms of communication. If no one reads your work, then it’s failed; it hasn’t bridged that endemic loneliness which drives us to write; hasn’t offered us access to another mind, other feelings. There are two parties in this process: writer and reader.
All fine and good: this is pretty much what everyone says, in one form or another. But is it true?
Part of the problem is that this argument usually leads to a head count. If you’re not popular, you’re not reaching people. Ergo, no communication. No one, of course, will give you an exact number. How much cosier it would be – how much more scientific – if we could safely say, you’ve got 4679 readers, so you’ve made it. Your writing is good. And with 46791, you’re a great writer. With 467913, a genius.
Except, of course, that we can all think of good writers who are hardly read, or unknown, or fallen into disfavour (and if lucky, rediscovered again at some point). Nor does the converse always apply, for there are popular writers whose work is undoubtedly excellent (or at least considered excellent at the time, just check out past award lists). So it doesn’t seem as if there’s much correlation between popularity and quality.
In light of recent economic developments, I would be hard pressed to defend the wisdom of the market.
But what about the writer? Surely she is writing in order to communicate.
No, fair reader, I don’t think so.
Let me qualify this. Perhaps this only applies to fiction, perhaps to poetry as well, and of course I can only speak of myself, my own process. When writing, I’m essentially listening – listening to the words as they form in my mind, sometimes feeling them in all sorts of sensory (and often musical) ways. I’m not communicating to others; someone – something – is communicating to me. If you’ve a mystic turn of mind, you’ll call it the Other. If not, you’ll think of it as other reaches of yourself. And as I listen, the choices I make – and I chose mostly word by word – are made for me alone, for what moves me and pleases me and puzzles me. I am my only reader. Once the story is out there, then and only then, does it begin to address someone else. But by that point it’s out of my hands.
Lest this all sound so very earnest, I tend to think of writing as a game of solitaire with the cards provided by earlier, and better, writers. Or a crossword puzzle, a maze, a rubik cube. Very possibly a set of dice – which words come up this time? I’m playing.
Update: To further the conversation, which seems to have become a healthy debate, I’d like to link to Frank Wilson’s own post about writing as communication. Please remember, everyone, that I’m exploring such matters, so that I’m grateful for criticism and may eventually change my mind!