Posted by: francesthomas | June 2, 2011

Dear Reader…

I was reading David Copperfield the other day, and couldn’t help noticing the aplomb with which Charles Dickens addresses his reader – confident that the reader is out there, and hanging on to his every word. And it’s not just a reader, but A Reader. Sometimes he even seems to be a personal friend of this Reader, talking to him or her as he’d talk to his own family: (I am in danger of wearying the reader whom I love, with personal confidences and private emotions…) Charlotte Bronte, speaking as Jane Eyre, had no compunction in addressing her Reader directly, in that famous announcement of the marriage. Victorian writers were quite happy about doing this, it seems- typical of the confidence – the intellectual confidence, anyway of the age in which they lived.

We’re not nearly so comfortable about that, these days. You very seldom find a modern writer addressing his or her Dear Reader – we aren’t even sure that this personage exists, by the time the Publishing Industry with its marketing strategies and sales figures and projections has finished with our poor little offerings. Are our books there to be read, or to be marketed? Do we have to jump up and down and wave our hands to grab our reader’s attention, rather than just sitting quietly at our desks, quill-pen in hand, in a pool of lamplight, knowing the reader is out there waiting for us?

I found myself thinking about this the other day ; wondering who I’m writing for, and who my Ideal Reader is . Am I writing for a multitude of readers, or just a single, sympathetic soul? When I write for children, do I really imagine a classroom of thirteen year olds devouring my prose? (Scary!) Or do I write for my thirteen year old self? Sometimes, I know I do, and I have to stop myself, or my characters start exclaiming ‘Gosh’ and ‘Crikey’ and other words from my long-ago youth. Great mistake.

I suspect that though we might be telling ourselves that we’re just writing for ourselves, we’ve always got in our mind that Ideal Reader, adult or child, who is longing to read what we’ve written, will share our ideas, who understands. I suppose it’s one of the reasons why bad reviews are so painful: who are you anyway? You aren’t my Ideal Reader! How dare you say such things! No matter how our book will be sold, or who it will be sold to, the image of the Ideal Reader stays in our mind, even though he or she might be just a figment of our imagination. But….

Some years ago, I gave a talk at a Literary Festival. Things didn’t start off well. Rain was bucketing down from an angry black sky. Someone had got the timing of my talk wrong – the children who were supposed to make up my audience had mostly gone back to school the day before. I noticed a small boy, brought along by his mother and I felt bad on his behalf, because my book was really aimed at small girls. Still, I gave my talk and in spite of my misgivings, all went quite well.
Later, as I left the Festival ground, I was pleased to see the rain had stopped and the sun was shining. And there, also leaving the ground with his mother was the small boy. In his hands he held a copy of my book, and as he walked along, he read and read, transfixed, unable to stop … That small boy, Dear Reader, was my ideal reader…..


Responses

  1. What a super, thought-provoking blog. And you’re right – the confidence of Dickens is/was astounding. (Didn’t he write most of his novels in serial form for newspapers?) Hmmm. My ideal reader is anyone who says of my work: ‘Ooh, that’s lovely and it made me giggle.’ A 96 year old Grandpa would do just fine. (Oh, and Dear writer, may I say I like your little boy story).

  2. I read the other day that writing and reading is a form of telepathy. A meeting of minds but with a time-lag built-in. In ‘A Passage to India”, Forster uses that phrase, “Only connect”. So perhaps our ideal reader is someone with whom we make that vital connection, someone who “gets” what we do. I gave a talk at Newport Library a few years ago, to a very small audience, but one particular boy obviously connected in some way with what I’d written. He bought copies of all three books I’d written. A few months later he created a very flattering Power-point presentation about me for a school project. He has even sent me, occasionally, some of his own writing to look at (with his mum and dad’s approval, of course!)

  3. A very interesting post, this. I tend to write as though I’m talking to someone, but I’m never quite sure if it’s right to make it obvious. Who
    is it, though? I’ve never thought of that. But I do assume that other writers are talking directly to me!

  4. Excuse my grammar on my previous response. Writing and reading ARE a form of telepathy. Standards!!

  5. Yes, a giggle is what you really hope for from your Dear Reader. If it’s a funny book, that is. Sue, I’d never thought of that before, but, yes, I always assume that a favourite writer is talking just to me, too. That’s a nice thought.
    I have an Unfavourite Reader too. he (it’s usually a he, I’m afraid) is the one who bangs on and on about some technical flaw he’s picked up in your book and you have to listen politely in case he eventually manages a compliment – which he never does.

  6. What a terrific post, Frances. It is very hard to picture an individual beyond the sales departments’ mishmash of Keystages and curricula. It is great to receive letters from children now and then, especially one which are spontaneous rather than orchestrated by a teacher as classwork. It suddenly reminds one of what it’s all about!
    ps I’ve just been reading The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices (Hesperus Classics 2011), a joint endeavour by Dickens and Wilkie Collins from Household Words (1857): a bizarre item I’d never come across, a snapshot of travels in Victorian Britain, with a dash of Gothic horror and rambling nonsense…


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