Poetry readings can confront the reader with periods of tedium and incomprehension. The regular listener learns to tune out and, one hopes, tune in again.

Short fiction readings can make the same sort of demands, but the tedium stretches out, and the incomprehension can become terminal. One break in that narrative thread – a misheard or misinterpreted sentence, even a single word – and the story slips from the listener’s grasp. While you’re thinking about what one line meant, you’ve lost important information in the next, and the story spirals away from you, never to be recaptured.

And yet, whole paragraphs of irrelevancy can be read out by autors blissfully unaware of their redundancies; authors who have no sense of what the important bits of their stories really are. That the worst of writers will go on the longest is not co-incidental. Unaware of their own writing, they are equally insensitive to how it is being received. The disturbing thought, for all of us, is to what extent we number among them!

Listening isn’t reading, although it’s getting closer when we consider recorded stories. Readers don’t have to drop that thread through a lapse of attention or a more than usually complex sentence. They can go back and pick it up again. They can think about lines for as long as they like before reading the next one. Writing to be read can take a few liberties that would be risky in writing to be heard.   

Yet, a writer as successful as Stephen King has pointed out (in his ‘On Writing’), most reassuringly, that even good writers don’t know what works, nor what doesn’t. In fact, his comments suggest to me that there is some doubt about the concept of good writing itself. C.S.Lewis, in ‘Of Other Worlds’ makes a strong attack on the ‘non-literary reader’, who brings his own imagination to bear on bad writing, and by doing so fools himself into believing that it is good. I’m reminded of the times I was told, in seminars during my M.Litt course among other places, to leave room for the reader. Was that the ‘non literary reader’, I wonder?

During that course I was always reluctant to accept, or even examine, the crucial links between writer and reader, between the acts of writing and those of reading. The more attention we pay to the reader, the more it seems we, as writers, are relinquishing our hold over what we can write. Yet, how we are read is the final arbiter on how we have written; and how we read must influence our evaluations of what we have been reading. How we think we shall be read, or even how we think we might, or should be, could be the decisive factor in how we think we will write.

This pushes us down the road to understanding that to become better writers, we might have to learn to be better readers, but it also raises the question of to what extent any reader might over-ride what has actually been written with his own imaginative version of what he thinks he has read.

Reading a book on James Joyce recently I noted that the study was described on the cover as ‘exhaustive’. Exhausting perhaps, but I suspect that Joyce would have refuted anybody’s claim to have ‘exhausted’ what was there to be read in(to) his work!

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