“Fuck the reader!”
As a journalist working at small East Coast papers, I churned out three or four stories a day––a brutal tapping of the keyboard as I met one deadline after another. In the limited time I had to report stories, I rarely gained sufficient knowledge to achieve the punchy expert’s tone that newspaper writing demands. Nevertheless, I did what was expected of me. I disguised areas of impossible complexity behind a nonchalant rhetoric that pretended anything can be reduced to a headline, lead, and nut-graph, the nut-graph being the nugget we gave readers early on in a story in case they wanted to skip all the paragraphs that followed.
While writing, I imagined my readers sitting at home reviewing the day’s stories at the kitchen table or sitting on the porch with the family dog. “Town plans to fertilize farmers’ fields with treated sewage” might read a headline accompanying a story I’d reported only a few hours earlier. The water district manager assured me the practice was safe. Being an accurate reporter, I wrote what he’d said. But was it? Safe, I mean, to dump partially treated human waste on farmers’ fields, waste that had been treated with all kinds of toxins before being dumped?
In the short period of time I had for reporting and writing, it wasn’t possible for me to convey both what I’d been told and the air of doubt surrounding questions, that me, a non-expert, hadn’t even known to pose.
Instead I focused on writing a story that could be easily apprehended by my imagined reader, someone who I came to think of as stupid, lazy, and easily bored. Such a conception meant I wrote articles that were brief, to the point, and colorful only to the extent “color” made the story more interesting, not more complex. These, I thought, were the traits of a good writer.
In leaving journalism and coming to fiction, my imagined reader continued to loom over my pages. Only now, she was more open to complexity and nuance. She enjoyed the lyrical sentence, wanted to move past archetypes, and infer for herself any meaning stories might hold. I wrote and often harshly judged my own sentences with her in mind, finding courage to excise whole paragraphs. Her criticisms guided the action. Yes, she was tough, sometimes silencing the more playful, crude, less sophisticated writer that lived inside me, but who would I be without her?
If, during revision, I didn’t focus on her needs, my stories might collapse further into chaos, senselessness, and self-absorption. My imaginary reader demanded it. As a writer, I thought it best to serve only her needs.
Yes, during the initial writing stages––that opening period when I’m desperate just to get ideas on paper––I silenced her ranting; she was no good to me then. But later, when I tried to shape and solidify, it’s her I conjured. This imaginary creature was both bully and champion, and most of my writing life had been devoted to serving her.
How exciting, then, to learn Ottessa Moshfegh, author of the highly praised novel Eileen and someone whose writing I much admire, writes and revises without regarding the reader at all.
A few years ago, Moshfegh visited a creative writing class I taught at Gavilan College (a rural community college at the southern end of the Silicon Valley). For weeks I’d been telling students that their workshop groups offered the important opportunity to hear from their readers. Then came Mosfegh who said she does her best to think of the reader not at all.
At first, I found it shocking that a writer as accomplished as she would dare revise in such a state of total self-possession. Though Moshfegh the person is warm, generous, and personable, something well demonstrated by her travelling far out of her way to work with a group of young and untested artists, Moshfegh the writer cares not at all about pleasing the reader or anyone else.
She explained she sets aside her ideas about readers’ needs in order to better serve the story itself, focusing all creative energies on apprehending it in its ideal form, revising only toward that illusive goal.
The term “ideal form” stood out to me in that particular moment. That same semester I’d been reading the Republic with a composition class. In it Plato poses his belief that everything we make––from spheres, to poems, to beds––is successful only to the extent that it matches that item in its most perfect incarnation, an incarnation we may never experience first-hand but one we can nevertheless sense exists.
Like Plato, Moshfegh seems to express that nothing should get in the way of the good, the good being whatever serves beauty and truth––not even imaginary readers.
I found the concept liberating, but a liberation that demanded great courage from writers. It takes courage to sense beyond the self into a more expansive place, a place where stories already exist without us, a place where the quality of our listening (not our will) determines how effectively our writing emerges.
As I now understand it, revision from this stance requires less anxious action from the writer. The goal is not to do but rather not to do too much. With a shift in focus from trying to please someone, who in the end, is impossible to know (after all the imaginary reader is a figment of imagination). One would instead maintain only what is precise and clear in a text, leaving everything else behind.
It requires one to write and rewrite in a state of trust, trust in a writer’s ability to intuit a story’s ideal state. This is akin to the old cliché about the sculptor who exposes the form as it already exists in the marble rather than creating it from a void. Or perhaps a better comparison is a doctor whose primary principle is “do no harm.”
I am grateful beyond all measure that Moshfegh articulated this radical stance, and someday I hope to experience writing from this graced and liberating position.