What can YOU say in six sentences?
Wasn't sure where else to post this, but I had to share. This is from David Simon, writer/producer of The Wire, in the liner notes to the soundtrack (which is itself excerpted from an e-mail exchange between Simon and Nick Hornby from the August 2007 issue of The Believer magazine):
"My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell."
well hell! this is a great quote, and an interesting point he's making. so if you're not writing for the average reader...who're you writing for? hmm....
Simon's point was that he wanted the people he was writing about--cops, criminals, lawyers, journalists, dockworkers--to recognize the world he was describing. Elsewhere in the same interview, he summons that ghost that haunts all writers, the ghost of Fraud, of that internal voice that says, "Who the hell do you think you are that a reader should pay any attention to your story or your interpretation of the world?" Without your story scanning as realistic/honest to the people who are the subject of your story, why would the average reader then give it any attention or respect? For me, the Average Reader as invoked here is the one who needs everything explained to them, cannot fill in any blanks for themselves, and has to have their morals spoon fed to them in an easily digestible, recognizable, and above all, comforting delivery. Does that sound anything like the real world to you? Me neither. And, no matter how fantastical our genre or subject matter, if we're not writing about the real, actual issues of life, then we're just pissing our efforts away.
Truer words were never spoken.
I agree, but then again John Cheever did pretty well writing about suburban life. It really is no less interesting; people are people.
I don't for a moment think this means we shouldn't make average people the subject of our writing, reading, or regard. Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, and many of my favorite writers have made whole careers out of dissecting the peculiarities and wonders of otherwise unremarkable lives. This piece is directed at the commercial worshipping at the altar of the Average Reader has made most of our current fiction blunted, banal, and useless insofar as it gives us only tired platitudes about the world as opposed to any real insight. In the thriller genre, where I often work, there are even openly proscribed guidelines like, "You have to have two plot twists," and "The reader has to know that the good guys are going to be okay." If plot twists are required, they ain't very twisty, and if we know the "good guys" are going to be okay, it ain't very thrilling. But the Average Reader hates surprise, or ambiguity. Again, if real life were clear cut and easily managed, this wouldn't be a problem. However...
"Proscribed" should of course be "prescribed," and I seem to have dropped a word from sentence 3. Sorry!
I have a suggestion for your reading: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. It is NOT for the average reader.
Thanks for the suggestion, Toby. I think I've heard of this novel but I don't know much about it. I'll definitely look into it.
It's funny how this stuff goes. I wrote a novel about street guys, and in the first couple drafts I had my guys talking street and the narrator talking strictly king's English. It was as if I'd draped a plaid suit on a Sasquatch. I finally realized that the way to make the thing work was to have the narrator talk like my guys. How else otherwise would he have even known to tell the story? The argot wasn't accessible to Mr. Average Reader, of course, but hell, let him work a little, and if he doesn't want to do that, fuck him. I wrote the novel because the memory of those streets juiced me, and within that emotional impact, especially given the thoughts that it stirred and which shaped me, lay the story's entire significance. And why write the story at all if not to recreate the milieu as faithfully as I could, and thereby give the reader a taste of what I was feeling and thinking? What other way to convey what the story meant, to me and possibly to the reader? A writer has one job in my opinion: to bring the readership inside him and let them see through his eyes. If he isn't trying to do that, he ought to just go be a Dagwood.
There's also the option of writing for the above-average reader, one who brings some sensibilities to the table besides the capacity for passive entertainment and will therefore meet you halfway. If your characters know certain lingo and patois (like RC's example above) then to maintain the illusion of that character, it's completely proper to use such terminologies without feeling obliged to explain them. An old sub hand wouldn't pause in his story to tell everyone how a nuclear drive works, right? Attentive readers will pick up things from context. I personally like nothing better than when an artist compels me to make an intuitive leap without them having to explain anything. Another one of DFW's gems was that great writers make you feel smarter.
Also, there are ways to keep the action moving forward, delineate character, and do your necessary exposition without making it painfully obvious that that's what you're doing. This is typically what separates average writers from exceptional ones, and those who aim for the attention of the Average Reader vs. the Exceptional Reader.
I second both comments - ditto, ditto and hallelujah - what's the point of reading if you're not going to be stimulated, informed, made to think? I know sweet FA about submarines, but when I'm reading Lapham's pieces it's the stories and the human interaction I'm looking for.
Reading helps you learn to understand yourself - and who would admit to being - or want to be - 'average'?
In case anyone wants the full text. Lengthy, but worthwhile.