The middlemen would try to persuade us otherwise. Self-publishing, they say, lacks the essential expertise to filter out dross. The traditional market, incorporating the money incentive, now with picky gatekeepers—agents, slushpiles, policies—lets the cream rise to the top, leaving also-ran contenders like lottery-players, counting their rejection letters, hitching rides on bandwagons, infected with vain hope. In capitalism we trust, then. The middlemen would say that. Their careers depend on it.
These arguments carry no weight with me. They didn’t motivate some of my heroes: Michelangelo, Kierkegaard, van Gogh, Pessoa, Wittgenstein. Like everyone else, they had to eat; but they didn’t compromise for the sake of trade. It’s not today’s market that matters, but posterity. Time erodes all but the eternal. Dross, like the poor, is always with us. Who’s to judge? Not me.
The text in blue below started off as an open letter to a particular writer. And then I nearly suppressed it as dross: see Postscript below. What is dross? Anything surplus to your needs.
Your (unfinished) piece is beautifully written, expressive, evocative, detailed and moving. Yet it needs to be shaped, to be more reader-friendly.
I don’t know any fashionable writers’-course jargon, have no contact with any of that. I merely speak as a reader and fellow-writer, who continues to wrestle with similar issues, and whose observations apply just as much to myself. Unless I try painfully hard, I’m likely to commit the very faults I see in others. And when I look at what I’ve written, I may be dazzled by surface features, blinded to structure and flow. I only wish that someone would tell me the things I need to be told. Feel free, the job is yours if you ever wish to give it a try!
To be reader-friendly is to be aware of the reader, and kind; to instruct the reader in what to expect. In any event, even without trying, the text triggers expectations from the first words on; as music does with every note, every harmony, every beat of silence. A narration trembles with the fullness of expectation, like a dewdrop about to fall from a twig, like a bud, like nature, like drop called Now suspended in time. What’s foretold, in the magical world of literature, must be delivered. That is the thread, the vector speeding our onward journey to the denouement.
This doesn’t come from any preconceived theory. All I know is, the first time I read your piece, I skimmed through the beautiful expression, looking for that connecting thread, a direction of travel. I started to trace it on the second reading. Finally, the third and subsequent times, I could take my time, luxuriate in every image. I know my own readers often have a similar difficulty reading my stuff; perhaps even this piece as it unfolds now. Yet I hope the first reading will be enough, or persuasive of a second reading.
Fiction or non-fiction, I see any piece of prose as narrative; at any rate, if it deserves to be called literature. Like music, it starts from silence, has something intended to touch us or make a difference; and ends in silence. Like life. If there is to be a willing reader, the narrative must satisfy and entertain. I’m aware that this sounds callous, if the tale is set in a frame of pain and tragic loss; if it’s a cry “De Profundis”, like Wilde’s anguished letter from prison, with that same title. (I pause at this point to download it from Project Gutenberg, and start to read. Yes, it bears out my point.) Is the reader, then, to be compared with a spectator in the Coliseum, where Christians are abandoned to starved lions? Yes, you could say that, if that’s the drama on show. We can walk out if we don’t like it. But our sympathies must be engaged, in this one-to-one performance.
What can be more intimate than the close contact between writer and reader? Certainly not with a “Private Dancer”. There’s no intimacy to be found there:
You don’t think of them as human(composed by Mark Knopfler, sung by Tina Turner). I’ve written elsewhere about the embrace between writer and reader: here, for example.
You don’t think of them at all
You keep your mind on the money
Keeping your eyes on the wall
Without an audience, no performance. Samuel Pepys’ secret diary was written to be read. You and I, we’re the kind of writer whose material is self-exposure, for self-therapy, transmuting ecstasy and pain into art. We’re performance artists with a different show every time, from the depths of our heart. We turn chronic pain into art, to dull the sting; a moment of ecstasy into art, to make it immortal, to conquer time—time which conquers everything. We could scribble in our notebooks, as I’m doing, in this instant, but it has to be more than a “note to self”. When you write a letter, it’s not done till you put it in the envelope, address it, stamp it, drop it into the official mailbox. Till then, it’s just a scrap: a pregnancy with live birth not guaranteed. It’s only born when it breathes in the reader’s heart and mind.
Let’s look at the piece’s title. If you tell me “Evening”, it’s hard for me to have any useful expectation. How about “That Evening”, or “One Evening”? The evening itself is the main character in your drama. Best we know that, have our eye on that from the outset. For you start with loss, and consequent void. We want something to fill it. That’s the expectation, the unspoken contract. Is it the evening’s majesty? Is shame and alienation your prerequisite for being knocked flat by something incomparably greater than a mere sunset? Reader satisfaction demands that you answer “yes”. Then we go back to the hopelessness we started with, or perhaps a worse one; before ending with some place or time, imagined or real, that’s full of glow and meaning, echoing the full majesty of Evening, already described. Where’s the direction of travel here, for the reader to follow your footsteps? You’ve poured out the puzzle pieces from the box. Take it further and string them together, with all the poetic licence at your disposal. The attentive reader will always follow. He can never see your original vision, but that doesn’t matter. Your pain and ecstasy are merely inputs to the alchemic crucible. Facts may get denatured so that truth can emerge in its pure state.
The big secret is to be your own reader, to split yourself in two or more; as Pessoa famously does. The writer-self is passionate: now ecstasy, now despair. The reader starts cold, simply wants to know: “What am I to feel? What am I to look out for?” To be that reader is to be detached, as far as possible: estranged from the writer who inhabits the selfsame body. Let there be “emotion recollected in tranquillity”, as Wordsworth specifies.
There are writers who assume the reader is a tabula rasa, a blank sheet of blotting-paper. Ergo, there must be adjectives, there must be minutiae, a back story. No. there must be a thread of relevance, nothing else. Just enough exposition to get the hang of whatever’s important to the narrative. Then the reader can do his own work, supply the missing details, use his own imagination and experience, not just relying on the writer’s.
I’m saying things here which don’t apply to you, dear —. Please excuse me, I’ve never been on a writing course as some have, but I’ve been a reader for 67 years, a thinker for some of that time, and the blest recipient of inner guidance from time to time. The most important idea I’ve encountered, in relation to writing, is this: the personal is the universal.
Young journalists, with degrees in journalism for all I know, seem to think that you reach the most people through cliché: a limited range of ideas and phrases, depending on your audience, which will ensure your message gets across. That, it would seem, is the repertoire, the vocabulary for every occasion; as if the world of communication beyond that is a freaky wilderness. Perhaps they are not wrong. There is a freaky wilderness out there and it’s not for us. But it’s only when we stop trying to be like everyone else, or even like anyone else, that we give ourselves permission to go deep enough, off the beaten tracks, beyond the very notion of fashion, to a place where we may discover a universal truth that perhaps no one else could have expressed: but one which a myriad souls will recognize, once it’s laid before them. That’s what we’re about. Consider the personal experience that burns in our soul and provokes us to write, as merely the stimulus. The end-product is art.
Our subject-matter comes from personal uniqueness. Our skill as writers is to make this accessible, to give it back to a world whose extremes of heat and pressure helped cast and forge it. There have been great writers who patently didn’t try to be reader-friendly. Finnegan’s Wake springs to mind, and the Prophetic Books of William Blake; in which the writer is so intent on what he has to say, so sufficient in his own genius perhaps, that he sets his sights on an ideal reader who’ll treasure his words enough to unravel them, no matter how long it takes.
I’d already repented of writing the above, even before publication. I was the author when I wrote it, but now, as its critical reader, I repudiate one of its main points, i.e. “Without an audience, no performance”. Poppycock and balderdash! We are, each one of us, witnesses to our own performance. We should be attentive to it. We may never find a more attentive audience. Why should our performance matter to anyone else, anyhow?
And on the topic of repentance, I shall finish with a quote from De Profundis, written from jail by Oscar Wilde on 20 sheets of prison-supplied paper, in the form of a letter. This particular passage was such an eye-opener to me, that I thought it may be to you too (you, the original addressee), or anyone else in the blogosphere.
Of course the sinner must repent. But why? Simply because otherwise he would be unable to realise what he had done. The moment of repentance is the moment of initiation. More than that: it is the means by which one alters one’s past. The Greeks thought that impossible. They often say in their Gnomic aphorisms, ‘Even the Gods cannot alter the past.’ Christ showed that the commonest sinner could do it, that it was the one thing he could do. Christ, had he been asked, would have said—I feel quite certain about it—that the moment the prodigal son fell on his knees and wept, he made his having wasted his substance with harlots, his swine-herding and hungering for the husks they ate, beautiful and holy moments in his life. It is difficult for most people to grasp the idea. I dare say one has to go to prison to understand it. If so, it may be worth while going to prison.PPS:
I wrote above: Is shame and alienation your prerequisite for being knocked flat by something incomparably greater than a mere sunset? Reader satisfaction demands that you answer “yes”. Oscar Wilde, suffering in jail, answers “yes” too.
The author of the tale who inspired the above, and to whom it was originally addressed, has given permission for me to provide links to his tale: http://brianspaeth-nyc.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/evening.html and