As Dan Brown's waaaaay overdue rip-snorter hits stores today, I thought it would be as good a time as any to talk about the different kind of readers there are in the world. Obviously there are a lot of different kind of readers in the world, but for our purposes here let's just separate them into two categories: writer-readers and reader-readers.
First let me tell you a story about a sixteen-year-old boy who had his very first short story accepted. As you can imagine, he was thrilled. Every time he went to the bookstore, he looked in the magazine section for the particular magazine that had accepted his story. When he visited family in New York, he checked out those bookstores too, looking for that particular magazine. He was so optimistic and naive to think that this magazine that had just accepted his story would be the kind of magazine that was available in just about every bookstore across the country.
Does this story have a happy ending?
Well, that depends on your point of view. What happened was the particular magazine eventually folded, as many particular magazines do. Later though this boy learned that wasn't such a terrible thing, as the particular magazine in question was the kind put together on a desktop computer, printed out, folded, side-stapled, and then forced to be called a magazine with very little readership (like a dozen people).
Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that, of course. We all can't have our first acceptances be to The New Yorker.
But was that boy upset? Yes and no. He understood how things went. But he also thought it was a shame. Because had that story been published, a lot of people were going see his story in print!
For those of you playing catch up, that young boy was me. Now here I am, almost 28, growing more and more cynical by the minute. I want to believe in a world where, if I publish a story, a lot of people will read it, and if they don't, they will at least know of its existence.
Unfortunately, that's not the case.
The majority of people that read my work are -- surprise, surprise -- other writers. Is there anything wrong with that? Of course not. But I think sometimes as writers, especially starting out, we fool ourselves into thinking that once we publish a story or poem or book, everyone is going to know about it and read it and love it.
Stop a random person on the street and ask them if they know who Dan Brown is. Most likely, they're going to tell you yes. The same with Stephen King, James Patterson, Nora Roberts, etc.
Then ask if they know who T.C. Boyle is, or E.L. Doctorow, or Joyce Carol Oates, or Stewart O'Nan. Some might say, yeah, sure, sounds familiar, but they might be hard-pressed to give you specific titles.
These, ladies and gentlemen, are your reader-readers.
If it wasn't for Revolutionary Road being made into a movie, hardly anybody would know the name Richard Yates anymore. But reader-readers are now familiar with the name, just as writer-readers have been familiar with the name for years.
What's my point here? Well, I'm not really sure. But I think it's important for writers to at least acknowledge there are different types of readers.
Right now I'm working on a new novel. It's very commercial, a straight-up thriller, and there are times when I find myself agonizing over a certain scene or even sentence, wanting to get the writing just right. Then I remember that with a thriller, the writing isn't so much important as is the pace and plot. Not that I shouldn't make sure the writing is as best it can be, but go to any bookstore, page through a half dozen thrillers, what are you most likely going to see? The writing will no doubt be good if not at least decent, but I highly doubt it will be the quality of writing you'd get from reading, say, Middlesex.
Ultimately as writers we are writing for ourselves. We have stories inside that we want -- need -- to get out. But we'd be lying to ourselves if we said we didn't care what other people thought. That's why we submit our work, after all, because we want to be accepted, want to be read.
That's why I think the short story is the purest form of storytelling. It has a specific purpose, which is simply to be told. Unlike writing a book, where you have to take into account your readership (again, the reader-reader aspect: who will this book appeal to?), where marketing and accounting departments have just as much at stake as the editor, a story is what it is. It doesn't worry about its readership. It just worries about being told, and being told well. Don't get me wrong, books can be beautiful things as well (I've read my fair share), but a story ... it's a different kind of animal.
Anyway, getting back to the whole writer-reader vs. reader-reader thing, writer-readers are the ones most apt to read short stories, both online and in print. Why? Because most often the people reading those online and print magazines are writers who want to place their work there. Not many reader-readers care about a little zine that's printed on someone's computer and only has 20 copies. That's not to say that little zine doesn't have value, of course (see how I'm trying to cover my ass here with every point?), but in terms of your average, every day reader who has already gotten themselves Dan Brown's latest, that little zine doesn't even come close to their radar (as neither does The Paris Review or Glimmer Train).
It's kind of depressing, when you think about it. That all our hard work and energy gets put into these stories, and then we submit those stories, and then, luckily, those stories get accepted and then published ... and only a handful of people actually read them.
It's better to remain naive, I think, to believe that everyone is going to see our work than to accept the fact that, well, pretty much nobody will.
But that shouldn't matter. Because we're writers, and we write because we have no choice. It's simply in our nature to write. The being accepted, seeing our work in print or online, that's great. And if people (reader-readers) come across our work and actually read it? Well, that's nice too.
P.S. As an aside, there is actually a third type of reader: the non-reader. Like this douche bag who is "a proud non-reader of books":