In this blog and the comments section that comes with every post, we here at Scribophile have discussed many aspects of writing and the literary life. Characters, plot, favorite books, background music, and approaches to writing: we’ve covered a lot of ground, and there’s still more to cover. But, I like to try and get away from the usual every now and then. With that in mind, I’d like to discuss something a little different here, and that something is power. It’s going to get a little philosophical in here, so be warned.
There’s a dynamic between the author and the reader that we seem to gloss over sometimes. Usually, we focus on the writing end of things, because hey, we’re all writers here, all looking to get better, stronger, faster. That’s all well and good; after all, it is the mission of Scribophile. You know what, though? We’re all readers, too, and readers don’t always get enough credit. Except for acting, writing is the art that most depends on an audience to actually exist. Writers turn thoughts and action into words on a page, but those words are nothing until a reader sees them and makes them real in the infinite amphitheater between his or her ears. When that happens, the act of creation is complete; the circuit is closed and the light bulb gets hot. However, the power has been ceded to the reader, because no matter how rich the prose or detailed the narrative, it’s the mind and will of the reader that is building or rebuilding the world described in the text.
I find that wondrous, as both a writer and a reader. As a writer, however, I also find a little frightening, because it seems to me that the power dynamic is not necessarily in my favor, even if only at a theoretical level. Because it’s so theoretical, it may seem easy to dismiss. Then again, isn’t this the stuff of what we do? Ideas and thoughts and concepts: these are our tools and materials, as surely as power tools and lumber are to a carpenter. To us, then, are not ideas and theories a little more real? When you create a character, doesn’t he or she seem to assume a sort of existence, at some level? Writers often talk of characters taking over the story or dictating the course of the narrative, which seems to be a tacit acknowledgement of that idea.
If that’s the case, then, it seems that the reader needs to be given a fair amount of respect for their role in the art. But not just respect; I think that just a smidge of wariness on the part of the writer needs to be in the mix. I think writers need to occasionally step back and be aware that the reader is not some passive receptor of our undying prose. Readers can be many things, from hateful to fawning, but they are rarely just sitting there. They are often active, curious, hungry consumers…and they have teeth. Readers don’t want to just build worlds based on a writer’s say-so; they want to interact with it, live in it, be a part of the whole thing. Readers want to own the world your prose describes; they want to take your world and make it theirs. As well they should, but there is a flip side to that desire. It makes them, even if only just a hair, a little dangerous, because we as writers can never know what form that will take.
What started this train of thought for me was an essay by Harlan Ellison that I read several years ago, and that I return to every so often because I find it haunting. The essay was entitled “Xenogenesis,” and it was about some of the weird and horrible things that people have done to authors in the name of fandom. I could tell you some of the hair-curling things that Ellison cites (a disgusting thing done to poor Alan Dean Foster is the one that always sticks in my mind), but Ellison is one of the great language writers working today, and his prose does the events better justice than I can or could.
The point is not to relate the horrors, but to illustrate the idea that this power dynamic can play out in truly deranged ways. It’s not enough to simply say these renegade readers are rude or criminally minded or thoughtless or insane or all of the above, although each of those arguments could be made in turn. These things didn’t just happen; they happened to specific writers, and were done by people who, in many cases, claimed to be fans. Some of these things were spur-of-the-moment (usually the thefts or physical assaults); others required forethought, meticulous planning and sustained effort. One of Ellison’s personal stories involved a harassment campaign waged against him through fan letters in major magazines that lasted years; another involved a junk mail campaign that damaged his credit and caused him numerous delays and troubles, also over the course of years. What made these stories uniquely disturbing was that, out of a sizable number of people that Ellison queries, only a couple had no stories to tell, and some of those later recanted. Of the rest, many asked that Ellison not use their stories or names in his talk (which later became the basis for this essay).
Most readers aren’t like this, obviously. In the vast majority of cases, the power dynamic between writer and reader plays out like we expect, like we hope it will and like we have ourselves experienced as readers. But, like any other human interaction, it has the potential for volatility, and writers should be aware of this and respect it. Writers and readers have a lot of power over each other, and understanding the nature of this power seems fairly important to this here writer. Take it as you will.