Every Tuesday or Wednesday I have lunch with a friend, a professor of philosophy, at a deli near my home and everything is fair game for our talks but sports. I am interested in sports, having grown up in Chicago—the slap-happiest sports town in the world. But he grew up somewhere else and thinks a basketball is something you hit with a bat.
A few weeks ago I mentioned that very important to my wife, who teaches writing, is the relationship the author establishes with the reader. I said I agree with her that the personality of the author shines all through the words and that as you read you respond to that personality, and that it accounts for much of the value we find in the work. Just as you make judgments about the work itself, such as to answer the question, “Do I like this and should I continue reading,” you also make judgments about the author such as, “Do I like and respect the person behind the words, and do I want to spend more time with him?” That happens whatever you’re reading—novel, blog, short story, play, poem, email, essay, memo, or letter.
And something similar happens whenever you look at a work of art, or see an actor act, or a dancer dance.
My friend said, “There is no relationship. There is no personality. There are only words.” Then I said, “I was reading a book recently and the information was useful—the author knew what he was talking about– but he was so arrogant and smug and self-satisfied that I couldn’t go on reading. But now James Agee, for example, is to me so likable and gentle and right-minded and has such compassion that I always enjoy his company.”
And then I thought: There are millions of people on earth who consider themselves serious writers, and many millions more who are engaged in other arts, and to whom the relationship between themselves and their audience has to be a major concern (2.5 million people in the U.S. alone consider themselves artists); so it would be worthwhile to give that relationship the attention it deserves.
The True Center
The true center of our experience with any kind of narrative writing in any language on earth is the sense that someone with a mind, a personality, and a background of experience is talking to us. That sense accounts—if it is favorable– for much of the pleasure we derive from reading, and it is that sense that a good writer will develop in the reader, consciously or not. What a writer is intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally radiates in the work and can’t be hidden from the discriminating reader.
Herman Melville said, “No man can read a fine author, and relish him to his very bones, while he reads, without subsequently“ forming “some ideal image of the man and his mind. And if you look…you’ll find the author has furnished you with his own picture.” Literary critic Georges Poulet wrote, “ (As I read) “I am aware of a rational being, of a consciousness, the consciousness of another opens to me, welcomes me, lets me deep inside itself, and even allows me, with unheard of license, to think what it thinks and feel what it feels. I am thinking the thought of another, but I am thinking it as my very own.”
Energy, Sincerity, and Other Qualities
The author’s qualities we connect with are those we respond to in any person we meet face to face. They include humor, energy, vitality, seriousness, playfulness, friendliness, originality, boldness, glibness, sensitivity, sensuality, elegance, flexibility of mind, intelligence, tenderness, objectivity, flippancy, etc. We become aware of the author’s interests, preoccupations, even obsessions, and how involved the author is in the subject, including her attitude toward her characters. Even the most objective and dispassionate writing, as in the short stories of Chekov, the master of understatement, conveys the personality of the author—his control and self-restraint.
We make judgments about the degree of ability the author has, and say, “That man is so skilled that he can do anything he wants with language. He’s so self-confident that he breaks the rules whenever he wants. He has courage; he takes chances.” We look at a great actor performing or Baryshnikov leaping and we say “Their skill is breathtaking; they are very disciplined and have worked hard to develop themselves.” It’s been said that painter and tortured genius Jackson Pollock had no natural talent. He was always aware that he was an artist that could not draw. But the guts he had appears in his every work, and in painting his groundbreaking way he changed the course of western art and the definition of what we mean by art.
A Distinctive Style
The first quality we notice about a master, or a truly excellent writer—or painter, or dancer, or actor, or any other artist– is a distinctive style. All great artists are concerned not only with communicating their vision and expressing their talent, but are preoccupied with the most effective way to do that. And style, which is anything but a minor afterthought, is the artist’s signature and as individual and as much a part of the writer’s, sculptor’s, actor’s, or architect’s, etc., personality and life experience as DNA. There was only one Marlon Brando and only one Frank Lloyd Wright.
Possibly the first requirement of a good style for a writer is the ability to put the reader into what is being written about and the writer’s presence right away, from the very beginning, and all the way through the work. Using a first-person “I” voice as in Hemingway’s autobiographical novel The Sun Also Rises invites the reader to share in the writer’s and narrator’s thoughts, feelings, and experiences, and can be tremendously effective. With the second person “you” the writer is addressing the reader directly, and that too, can have a strong effect.
How We Want To Be Treated
There is a sharp difference between authors who treat us as essentially their equals and those that (like political candidates) imply we’re their inferiors. That author I couldn’t stand and couldn’t go on reading had no respect for the reader. He had no concept of the fundamental truths that artists must have an understanding of their audience and what will please them, excite them, and hold their attention, and what will “lose” them, including the author’s own personality. Authors we have friendships with are those who share interests with us and respect us, never underestimating us, never talking down to us.
The Author’s Mind; the Artist’s Mind
We respond very much to the author’s mind in action, and whether we’ll go on reading or not and how attentive or respectful we’ll be depends on how interesting and stimulating we find that mind. I was reading a true story about a man who was having trouble getting to sleep, and his mind was so active trying to figure out how to do that that I just sat back and laughed and marveled at his ingenuity. We are involved with the author’s mind from the first word, and the skilled author will let you know immediately that his mind is active and sharp. Even a nice metaphor or a perfect sentence or clear writing give us the reality of entering the author’s mind.
We could just as easily be talking about the painter’s mind, or the ballet dancer’s mind, or the movie director’s mind. Whatever the art, the audience responds to that mind one way if it is interesting and another if it’s not.
Intimacy and Integrity
The particularly effective writer—the particularly effective artist of any kind—will develop a relationship that goes beyond liking and beyond friendship to intimacy, and that comes from above all else the sincerity we find in the work. Sincerity is what I sense in Agee, for example. Anyone who can write so beautifully and so sensitively, honestly, and intensely must be trying to communicate to me something that he cares deeply about. The intimate writer invites us in to his inner life and says “Here I am.” I sense utmost sincerity too in Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”—a poem in which the writer actually speaks to the reader and tells us that as he is writing the poem he is thinking about us. And I find it in all the work of van Gogh, and some blogs I read. The artist is sincerely trying to connect with me and communicate something directly to me as well as he or she is able, and I respond.
Good writing has integrity—our being whole and authentic with no division between who we are and what we write, or paint, or how we perform on stage. We guarantee that we aren’t faking, or deceiving, or compromising. Hemingway referred to integrity as the built-in “bullshit detector” that every real artist possesses.
No Place to Hide
It is futile to think we can hide ourselves from an audience for very long or fool it into believing we’re something we’re not. The voice that comes through is not something that is imposed artificially from the outside, but is the genuine, the authentic, the true, the real person. Even when we write about a character that is nothing like us, the person we are—with our history and our points of view and our opinions comes through clearly. The very images we use and the very vocabulary tell a great deal about us.
Addition by Subtraction
An authentic voice is not achieved by adding something, but by the opposite process—by subtracting what is pretentious or not genuine. Every artist is unique and different from every other. There are no duplicates. But whatever she is like, we are trying to locate her and understand her.
Coming Out of the Shadows
So if we are looking for prescriptions, the first would be: “Whatever your art, come out of the shadows and reveal yourself. Let your true personality permeate all through your work—your sincerity, your honesty, your mind in action, your originality and uniqueness, the ‘I’ who you are–for it is that, above and beyond the other content, that your audience will respond to. Be interesting, be clever, be skilled, be alive, be true, and be authentic.
© 2014 David J. Rogers
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11 responses to “Writers and Other Artists and Their Audience: A Very Personal Relationship”
Hi David, I really enjoyed this post – and as opposed to your friend at the cafe, I agree totally. The act of reading is a completely intimate one, and we definitely get a feel for the author through the words. How could your friend say that they are just words, when each word is imbued with the energy with which they are written? That’s one of the reasons that when we read books by spiritually advanced people, we feel closer to that part of ourselves which is also enlightened. We sense their integrity and authority. I love this : “Good writing has integrity—our being whole and authentic with no division between who we are and what we write.”
Good hearing from you, Sara, and thank you for getting back to me. I see that you feel strongly about this just as I do. As for my friend, I think he is just stuck in a certain academic outlook. I’ll see him in a few days, and I’ll tell him what you said.
David another wonderful article full of great examples of how a great writer develops a relationship with their reader. It’s so true, that we usually relate with people we like, we bond with the writer and characters we like. We don’t bond just because of the clever writing, or message they give us. White papers, research or medical books may be exceptions, we read just for data. It’s true that if I feel that the writer is just trying to lecture me, or is holding back I feel short changed.
A writer is communicating with the reader, every bit as much as if they are talking with them face to face. I must like and trust the writer to carry on reading. However when we’re taught to write essays or reports at school or college, facts and clever writing is often given far more creedance than true honest emotion. (At least it was when I was taught). So perhaps that’s why so many writers, including me, often find it so difficult to find their true voice. To allow their own personalities, thoughts and feelings come out in their writing. We will never be able to write for everyone, just as we can’t be bosom friends with everybody. Your article has taught me is that we should and must be true to ourselves when we write, then just maybe some people may bond with the real us and carry on reading.
Susan, I find that your reading my posts is a gratifying experience for me. You’re such a responsive reader who is open to others’ ideas and experiences that sending off these posts and imagining you so far away reading them makes me glow with anticipation of what you’ll be saying next. I’ve found that often when artists find their true voice and stop trying to please everyone but themselves they become liberated and reach new heights in their art. So as you and I become freer, we will, I’m sure, reach new heights and achieve clearer and clearer expression.
It’s a pleasure to read your posts, you have a lot to share, and it’s obvious that you’ve put a lot of thought and care into how you communicate your message to the reader. If we want to develop then it’s easy to open our minds to other people and what they share with us.
We can always learn, or be reminded of what we may have forgotten, or neglected to use.
Thank you for your insights and inspiration. I look forward to reading lots more from you.
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Susan, Thank you once again for your kind comments. You’re right. Open-mindedness is vital to making positive changes in one’s life. I’ve enjoyed reading posts on your blog as well, and look forward to reading many more. I just read your post on overcoming fear of public speaking. As you might know, I’m a public speaker, and I can’t agree with you more about the tremendous importance of preparation.
David this was extremely to the point and well worth reading. You have a good and reliable voice; this article is certainly indicative of your open-mindedness and ability to connect with others, while at the same time cogently assessing what a writer needs to have in order to be acceptable to her audience. I hope I have in no way sounded patronizing here as I intend exactly the opposite. I do have an anxiety disorder unfortunately that includes me not wanting to be disrespectful to anyone. Thank you for your article. X
David, thank you for your compliments and especially the one about my voice. I try to be fair, clear, and accessible, and to communicate important information in a simple, unambiguous way. I appreciate your taking the time to send me your valuable comments. As you know, you’re not alone. Many writers suffer from anxiety. I think many sensitive and thoughtful people often second guess themselves and worry needlessly because it’s so important to them to be kind to others. I know exactly what you are talking about.
This is lovely; as a writer I find your posts nurture creativity in a deep and wonderful way. Thank you for doing what you do.
Josephine, my friend, you’re welcome. I like this one too. June 2014, when my son and wife suggested that I write a blog, I asked them why I should, and my son said so I would get feedback on my ideas, and that’s what I enjoy most about writing the blog. It makes me feel good to sit down at my computer and find, for example, that at 3:49 A.M. someone in Oman has sent me the feedback my son was talking about. I thank you so much for it.