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…..