From A Reader’s Point Of View


When I was living another life, in another country, some years ago, I worked for a time as a marketing researcher. My job, in this other life, was to sit hidden in shadows behind a one-way mirror – from this place I observed, made notes on and recorded the opinions of the product test group of the hour. They knew I was watching them – there was to inform them of this them of this, and besides which, I suspect the giant and otherwise completely incongruous mirror in an otherwise dull office complex would have been something of a give-away.

I am not trained in marketing or anything vaguely resembling marketing. It was all novel to me, and this newness, in part, made it a tolerable job (the other tolerable aspect was being paid). I learnt a thing or two about our commercial world too. One of these discovered truths was this: some time ago, perhaps a decade back, maybe two or three, product focus groups changed. There was a fundamental shift in the answers people began giving to questions about test products. When asked, “What do you like about Revolutionary New Beer?” people no longer said, “It tastes good. It gets me drunk nicely,” or something similar – instead they began giving another class of answer, something more like: “Well, I think women will like it. And the packaging would appeal to twenty-somethings. I don’t know if everyone will go in for the brown bottle though. Have you thought of green? Most people prefer their beer bottles green. Some of the more upmarket bars probably won’t stock it.”

The thing was this: people’s lives had become so saturated with advertising and so infused with marketing, that the very process of marketing had become component of their lives, their world, their ontology. People started giving answers as if they were themselves in advertising (and in a sense they are, up to their necks, and remain perpetually so). Marketing types had a problem. They found themselves needing to develop new and fiendish questions to bypass people’s marketing-minds. “Imagine yourself visiting Planet Revolutionary New Beer? What sort of people live on Planet Revolutionary New Beer? Would you live on Planet Revolutionary New Beer? What sorts of colours do people wear on Planet Revolutionary New Beer? (these are actual examples of questions put to groups. Jung, eat your heart out).

After I left the job, I didn’t think much about it again. And I’m not sure when the memory of the experience came back to me… a few weeks ago. Months? It was a gradual, recurring and unconscious motif for a long time before it was a thought. It transformed, as vague notions will, into another thought, this: I began to notice an odd little trend among book reviews. The reviews were mostly of the online, amateur sort. But it seems a real enough and frequent enough thing to pique interest. It seemed to me that there was a growing tendency for readers to critique a book, not review it. What do I mean? In some reviews, and I hasten to add not all – comments were starting to move away from whether a book moved a reader, or made the person smile or weep or think about the world differently, or consider changing their life, but rather the comments gravitated around whether characters had suitable motivations, whether the plot arcs were paced well, whether there were sufficient subplots, was the dialogue believable, was the setting was imaginative, original, coherent… the reviewers in these cases were not using the words of the Reader, but the proclamations of the Writing Workshopper, the Editor and the MFA Teacher.

And so what?

Very well. So what indeed. So the ranks of readers are filled with would-be writers? This is hardly a revelation. It seems to be a rule of the universe that middle-class, often highly educated, reasonably intelligent people want to be writers (someday). It’s about on the same level as that strength of feeling a lot of people seem to possess that they would make for an excellent professional photographer (if someday they quit their day job and took the chance). It isn’t a new thing either. When Andrew Lang gave his address How to Fail in Literature (transcribed 1890), he was obviously keenly aware that he was speaking to a crowd of young, eager persons, all of them youthfully and eagerly wanting (one day) to be writers (someday). Dorothea Brande’s excellent Becoming a Writer was published in 1934, and she wrote about the desperation of wanting to write and publish. She wrote about the repeated disappointment she found at the heart of most, or all, writing books and classes she turned to. She tells of a bookcase full of writing advice and vast sums of time and money expended on classes – all of this suggesting that the industrial-strength writing class is no new thing.

And here I wonder.

I wonder if there has been such a persistent, slow creeping and crawling of ‘how to write’ into the world of the reader that we – as readers – are starting to become a little like those product testers. When called upon to explain why we like a given piece of fiction, it is easy and even convenient to fall back on adages about pacing and characters and plot and showing not telling (by all the pantheons that have not and will never exist except in dreams I hate that last one, if for no other reason that the very phrase show don’t tell is itself telling, not showing).

This whole business about the craft of writing may form itself into a sort of feedback loop. It may already be doing so. It may already have done so. If the glorious red-pen panoplied and under-appreciated vanguard of small press editors and slush readers make unconscious decisions based on things they’ve been taught in writing classes about craft, if reviewers use ‘show, don’t tell’ as an admonishment, if readers start to think as critiquers… what sort of landscape of story will unfurl? In an SFF convention I attended a while ago I noticed at least one attendee prefacing questions to authors by saying, ‘From a reader’s point of view…’ as if somehow this was to be apologised for, as if somehow there was any other point of view that mattered.

I’m going to dance off to one side now. This is, after all, a sort of a story itself, and although some stories walk and some stories run, others dance (to paraphrase the inimitable Ursula Le Guin). I’ve always thought there never were quite enough dancing stories.

Let’s dance.

In the last couple weeks I have read in rapid succession Language of the Night by Le Guin, Zen in the Art of Writing by Bradbury and Wizardry and Wild Romance by Moorcock. This undoubtedly has been bad for my brain. It was a strange experience, and a dizzying one. Where Le Guin was humanely encouraging, Bradbury was an intimidating sandstorm of enthusiasm, and Moorcock was at once insightful and unforgiving (Moorcock goes so far as to suggest that a certain author contemporary to his essay deserves castration – now there’s a literary criticism you don’t often read). But in reading these books one-atop-another, flipping back and forth, I think… I began to unravel some common threads. The brightest of these threads, the most stark, was that not a one of these writers gave the barest advice, or nod or whisper towards technique – all those motes of wisdom about pacing and plotting and characterisation – they were barely touched on.

Their advice, that thread I spoke of, was something closer to this: write from yourself. Write from deep inside yourself. Find ways and means to know thyself and to thyself be true. If you write from deep enough inside yourself you’ll find the things that are common to human experience but which have not yet been dissected by the sharp quill. Know thyself. Be thyself. Write as thyself. Write truth.

After you’ve discovered how to write truth, then you can go and learn the craft and skills and toolbox tricks of the professional writer. Those skills are easily learned with a little practice, but if you lack something real to say, something genuine, then the writerly skills will not help you move much past hackdom and what Moorcock (in his remorseless insight) described as the shopwork and mass manufacture of story. An author can be very successful, for a time, in the manufacture of ephemeral story. That is not to say that ephemeral things are without beauty. I suppose it is only sad when the author is self-deceptive about the nature of their own work. Not everyone wants to be timeless and not everyone can be.

In all of this I am but boiling down the words of three disparate minds to a sort of slick residue. Go read those three books if you haven’t. They’ll leave you a little amazed.

The best example of truth over technique that I can think of is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The structure is awkward, the text laboured and ornate and the voice of the creature (she never really uses the word ‘monster’ much – maybe once? I wasn’t counting) is indistinguishable from Victor’s. For a good third of the book, while the creature is talking and talking and talking, he is less frightening than boorish. And yet, as other better persons have observed before me, we cannot shake the creature loose from the fabric of the myth of our brains. Not now. Maybe not ever. He was real and he is true. Mary Shelley found him in a corner of her mind, and when she looked at him, he looked back at her, and now he is looking at all of us and he will not go away. Le Guin discusses him, and the force of his reality more eloquently. Go read her words. But as for the creature, he could be with us centuries from now, lurking in the corridors of enamel-white starships, whispering to us from virtual shadows, until such a day as Earth itself is little more than a fairy tale.

For the most mechanical, and I think in some ways reprehensible, advice on writing, try web-searching terms like ‘workshop checklist’ or ‘fiction writing checklist’. I found one recently that had an impossibly bemusing question under the category, Narrative: Does the narrative get in the way of the story?

Workshop checklists abound with questions like ‘Is there sufficient conflict?’ and ‘Is there a good blend of narrative, description and dialogue?’ and ‘Does it entertain and interest the reader?’ The bleak and insurmountable difficulty with the checklist advice is that it is fundamentally good advice. Your writing will become more readable if you follow it, but the impression given is that by following these rules, you become a writer. This is not true. Readers know it. Most, if not all professional editors, know it (after all, most good editors are really Readers). My concern is not for them. I don’t want to be melodramatic about teacup squalls. If I have a concern, it is for the novice writer and the slush reader, the online reviewer and the once-a-week works hoper – the people who one day will in all likelihood be the foundations of the art and craft and business of letters and stories. So, yes, go and learn your technique. Only a fool wouldn’t. But perhaps try to keep in mind this checklist while you do. It’s rather a short one.

1) Does your story make a reader feel and/or think (or better yet both)?

2) Is your story true?

About Christopher Johnstone

Christopher Johnstone lives in Melbourne
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