Engagement with any artform is, I suspect, like a journey. With writing I’ve found it to be a journey that takes me past many questions, and some of those questions I have passed time and again. The answers, to stretch a metaphor, are the paths I taken onwards each time, and its them that bring me back to the questions. Every now and then though, I make a different answer, and end up on a new path. I suppose that’s what I must think of as progress. One such question concerns the relationships between writers and readers – or between readers-out and audiences. This question popped up recently over the issue of ‘reading and running’ – where performers do their thing, and then vanish! I’ve seen it at various venues, and it’s not about the ‘guest reader’, but about the open mic readers, the literary equivalents of the ‘floor’ singers we used to have in folk clubs, and probably still do.
I like the sort of clubs where the readers come out of the audience, and go back into it. Carlisle’s Speakeasy, at the Source cafe, was one such. In fact, we rarely had ‘guest readers’ at all. In a situation like that, to go on early and read your own work and then to leave the auditorium is not merely arrogant, but a metaphorical slap in the face to those readers yet to perform. Of course, there are times when we have to leave early, but there’s a line to be drawn between that and ‘reading and running’. Not staying to hear your contemporaries read does carry some implications. Most obvious is that they are not worth hearing, but there are deeper inclinations beyond that. The question is raised, for example, of why you would want to be heard by people who themselves are not worth listening to.
I remember a time when I was (passing a question on my journey) very keen to believe that my work was being read and listened to by people who weren’t writers. That, perversely it seems to me now, seemed to make them a ‘proper’ audience! One can see where such ideas come from. Other practitioners are competitors, commercially speaking, for such an audience, which is, in a sense, fodder to your artistic bank account, and fame. In those days I thought of writing to be read, or heard by other writers as a sort of Baroque exercise. Now I’m not so sure; in fact I’m about as sure the other way. This is why the reader and runner, I think, may be missing a trick. An audience of fellow writers knows a thing or two about what you’re trying to do, and if you hang around they’ll perhaps tell you a bit about it. They’ll give you a lesson or two in how it’s done as well (or how it’s not – which is almost as valuable). Of course, it’s good to see non-writers too, at the events I’m talking about, and to see and hear how they react to the writers who follow you. The supreme confidence that yours is the best work, and that the rest can be safely ignored, might be shaken if you stay to listen, but then again, it might be stirred.
I finished reading Tolstoy’s War & Peace a couple of days ago, and one element has stuck in my mind since. That was to do with the two epilogues that follow the main story. In case you have skipped them, given up before them, or not given the novel a go, I can point out that the first epilogue carries on the lives of the main protagonists over the next decade or so. It’s a curious continuation, tempting me to think it almost a blue-print for how Tolstoy thinks a private, domestic life ought to be lived. The second epilogue is even stranger. Here the author presents us with a closely argued, circa thirty page long (in my edition) essay about the nature of History and its writing. The content is not what I want to comment on, so much as the placing of the essay. A while back I read, and wrote about ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’. Tom Wolfe’s novel also has an essay (in the edition I read), but his is placed at the beginning. The thought struck me that in Wolfe’s case the essay must prejudice our understanding of the story (which it precedes), whereas Tolstoy’s story prejudices our understanding of his essay (which follows it). Looking at another big novel, Melville’s Moby Dick, we see a whole series of smaller essays, about whales and whaling, running through the entire story, like the marbling in good Aberdeen Angus beef. I’m reminded, that whatever scale we are thinking of, from the phrase, through the sentence, paragraph and chapter, to the whole book, in writing, what precedes prejudices our perception of what follows, and what follows amends our perceptions of what has gone before. This fundamental quality of language, that we take it one word at a time in order (despite the attempts of the avante-garde to create alternatives), is probably the single most important element in storytelling, whether in short stories, flash fiction, or doorstop novels, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find that it holds good for non-fiction prose, and for poetry too!