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!


6 thoughts on “Measuring success

  1. Lee 15 years ago

    Disingenuous: yes, Nick, I’ve certainly heard that before. But please give me credit for being self-critical enough to have considered it, and curious enough to wonder at commonly held views.

    I never said anything about unobserved. My point, I suppose, is that we’re talking about two different things: one is the way I create a text, another is what happens afterwards. And I would still argue that a text exists even if I remain the only reader. To struggle to overhear the whispers in my head and capture them in the way which most satisfies me – using, I grant you, that which is also a means of communication – is primary in my life.

    I’m certain, however, that many writers write with the idea of communication at the forefront of their work. I just don’t happen to be one of them.

  2. Nick Green 15 years ago

    > 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.

    Well of course, it's more like the reverse πŸ˜‰ But you know this argument is a bit disingenuous! You're speaking here only of 'quantity' of communication – How Many Readers? We know that's not what it's about. I think writing is about communication, and it's about Quality of communication.

    If you can take this feeling you have, and somehow induce a similar feeling in someone else, however briefly or partially, you have created art. Even if the feeling is quite different from that of the author (something written with melancholy in mind is read as cathartic) then there is still communication – just a transmutation too. Like a current passed through a transformer, to get all electrical about it…

    I believe writing MUST be communication. Unobserved, it's like Schrodinger's Cat. It doesn't fully exist. You need the observer to make it real. That is, the reader. And no, I don't think the only reader can be the author. That would be the cat observing itself. Dunno why I'm talking about cats…

  3. Lee 15 years ago

    Hi LM, yes, precisely. Afterwards I’m quite happy to be told what a work of genius (ahem!)I’ve produced. Who doesn’t enjoy that?

  4. L.M.Noonan 15 years ago

    Well, I have to admit to making things for my eyes only. After that I start hoping for a kind word or three.

  5. Lee 15 years ago

    Hi Chris,

    Though I took our conversation as starting point, my post was more of a general statement about my own writing. It’s of course fascinating to read how you view matters, but perhaps I need to be very clear: I write with no one in mind; the text is my focus. Readers come later. Other writers may – and likely do – work in a different manner.

    So how do I judge what I’ve accomplished? By measuring my fiction against that of other writers, generally not against reader response. Text to text, in other words. I try to place criticism in this context, but so far a James Wood or Steve Kellman or Nona Bakalian has yet to pay me any heed – oh wait, the latter is already dead!

    My standards don’t seem to change according to mood and whim, though I hope they crystallise as my discernment and skill improve.

    Doubt is essential to the fictional process.

    As to the nature of reality,you’ll find my questioning best reflected in my fiction.

  6. Chris Poirier 15 years ago

    Hi Lee,

    I think you’re oversimplifying my position a bit. πŸ˜‰

    First, there’s the matter of your audience. Not every thing is going to appeal to all people. That’s just the way it is. What I’m writing now has a very limited audience, for instance — I don’t even expect my own mother will ever want to read it. πŸ˜‰ It’s full of raw anger, grinding fear, and self-doubt that borders on self-loathing. It’s written very in-the-moment, from the point-of-view of a character who is hyper-aware of himself and hyper-aware of his own physicality and the physical world around him. The language isn’t pretty — if it was, it would make the story *less* effective, not more so. It has genre elements that a lot of people just won’t ever be comfortable with. And, to top it all off, it’s written in present tense, which a lot of people just can’t stand.

    So, no, I do not measure the success of my writing by its position on the NYT bestseller list. Which is good, seeing as it’s never going to appear there. πŸ˜‰

    My point is that, when you are writing, you have goals — you know what you are *trying* to do with your words. And when you put them in front of people who are receptive to what you are trying to do — however few people that may be — how many of them you actually hold isn’t a bad estimate of how well you did your job as a storyteller and a writer.

    Now, that’s not to say I don’t critique my own work. Frankly, I know I failed utterly in certain key things that I was trying to do. Few of my secondary characters have any real depth, and some of the early characterization even of my primary character was clumsy and over-the-top. And because I’m serializing online, as I write — without going back to revise history — my mistakes get to stand for all to see. One of the benefits for *me*, of writing this way, is that it has mostly broken me of my bad habit of repetitively rewriting stuff before it was done (ie. instead of finishing it) — an act that amounted to little more than literary masturbation, and did nothing to improve either the work, or me as a writer. Frankly, I’m a vicious critic of my own work, and I don’t get the benefit of the courtesy-filter I apply to my critiques of anybody else’s. Also, here’s a fun fact: I’m not a great writer! Honestly, the *best* I can do just isn’t all that good. I’m working on it, but that’s going to be a life’s work. Possibly two. πŸ˜‰

    So yes, apply your craft — know who you are writing for and let that inform your choices. And then *test* it — see where it communicated what you wanted it to and where it didn’t. Because that’s the only way, really, that you are going to know if you accomplished what you set out to — because communication does always involve two parties.

    In your case, you have the best and worst of all worlds — you’ve basically said your target audience is yourself. For an uncritical person, that’s probably a great boon. For people like you and me, well . . . not so much. But here’s the thing: if you really are only writing for yourself, without thought for how another person may receive and interpret your work, then you really have abandoned reality for a world of your own making — where the rules and goals change with your mood and whim, and level of self-doubt. If you’re anything like me, that’s not an easy world to live in — and, for me, it’s not a world I care to live in any more.