Activity Being Avoided: grocery shopping (am totally out of milk, which inhibits tea and cereal consumption–which means I might die)
Music In My Head: 10 000 Words–The Avett Brothers
Tea Being Drunk: triple-strength peppermint
Book Being Read: Mercy on the Children–David Adams Richards
The book launch went well… for a first-time, self-published book in the centre of the cultural badlands that is suburbia. I had a good time, in any case.
Here’s the talk I gave yesterday morning. Pour yourself another cup of tea.
Write What You Know: Using Minority Characters in Fiction
What is a writer?
The question is, quite frankly, a waste of time because there is no correct answer to it. The only thing that can be said with any certainty, in every case, is that a writer is nothing without a reader.
This reader may not be one of the thousands-upon-millions thronging to Chapters for the latest best-seller; this reader might be the writer themselves, waking in the middle of the night and needing comfort from a familiar story in a familiar voice.
As Alberto Manguel says in Notes towards a Definition of the Ideal Reader, “The ideal reader is the writer just before the words come together on the page.”
Ideally, the writer writes for themselves. Let’s be good writers and uphold the noble practise of thievery: we’ll be stealing Manguel’s concept of The Ideal Reader.
So, why is the ideal reader reading? Another reader, the literary critic Northrop Fry, had a theory that the ideal reader is looking for the ideal life. He said, “Literature does not reflect life; …it swallows it.”
When a reader is searching for the answers to life, they turn to books, looking to be swallowed into a world that offers some sort of clarity. As readers, we know this well: the adolescent hours whiled away in the library, devouring the book that gave us an answer, a solution, a moment of relief. We found characters who were just like us, philosophers who thought the way we thought, poets who liked the same words we like. This created a learned behaviour, if you will. We still seek rescue through books.
So now, as writers, we’re trying to put stories on the paper, but our writing is hemmed in by the things we’ve learned in adult life: namely, how to behave in society. We toe the line between conformity and ostracism—at least, on a good day.
But then comes this need to write, and a need to do something productive with this writing. The ideal writer needs to find, hopefully, more than one ideal reader, and publishing is the simplest way to do this. So the writer searches for a means of getting published and runs into the problem of mathematics, where more readers make it easier to get published. How to go about appealing to more readers? Not by appealing to the minority, surely? “You’ll never get published if you don’t appeal to the masses!” (Now, it should be noted that non-fiction seems to be exempt from this rule: the “don’t frighten the horses” rule is for emerging fiction writers.) Agents and publishers echo this idea of conformity and playing nicely with other children.
Writers have all these words bursting from our souls, but society is also telling us not to rock the boat.
Do the readers agree with the agents and publishers?
The ideal reader certainly does not.
The ideal reader is desperately thirsty for knowledge, for the swallowed life.
The ideal reader reveres the work of the Brontë sisters, who provided the insane and insatiable lovers who frequent our dreams.
The ideal reader clasps James Baldwin’s books as if they were life savers: black and homosexual lifesavers.
The ideal reader searches for everything Stephen Fry has ever written: he’s got tall, homosexual, Jewish and bipolar covered.
Sunday schools and preschools, in particular, seem to encourage the concept of everyone being special. The specific interpretation of the word is up to the individual, but the general idea is there: each person has something that makes them unique. This singular trait—or, perhaps like Stephen Fry, a bucket of traits—is the connecting force between the writer and their ideal reader.
Writers of fiction are not known for being normal. To write fiction, one must be able to delve into the abnormal, paring reality down to its strangest parts. Readers don’t want to read about ordinary things: ordinary life is what we have to suffer every day. If the writer takes something ordinary—eating, walking to work—and writes about the extraordinary aspects of it, then the reader slurps it up.
So writers, when doing their best writing, write what they know. Sure, the writer is doing ordinary things like schlepping the kids to school and paying bills, but the writer is able to write about being educated by said schlepped kids and finding Total Enlightenment in the number of zeros on the credit card statement.
The same applies to characters. Just as the ideal writer would not be able to write well about something they’ve never experienced, they cannot write well about a character with whom they are not intimately familiar. The ideal writer, being abnormal in their own creative way, will take a minor trait of their own and add it to the blood infusion given to the character. This is how the ideal character is created. What could have been two-dimensional and commonplace suddenly becomes fleshed-out and animated because of this minor trait which the writer knows like the back of their hand.
The writer knows these things—not “knows” as in has studied or researched, but knows them intrinsically. The short person has no concept of what it’s like to be tall, and the tall person, though they were once shorter, has little-to-no recollection of living in a world where things are out-of-reach and obstacles obscure vision. The short author can write an authentic account of being short; the tall author can write an authentic account of being tall.
We know “write what you know” is a good rule because that’s what brings out our best writing. But to a certain extent, we’re also obligated to write what we know, to give those little moments of relief to the readers who are floundering through a difficult period, searching for something to keep them afloat. Gustave Flaubert said, “Read in order to live.” Writers do that; writers should help others do that.
For the benefit of the ideal reader, write about the less-than-ideal body, skin colour, sexual orientation, belief or persuasion; write about the raw-meat eaters and the blood drinkers; write about the ones who dance on the sky and the ones who sleep in trees. Write about the lack of mental health, the lack of physical health, the lack of emotional health, the lack of spiritual health.
When the ideal writer feels they’ve satisfied the ideal reader, there’s a second reason for rocking the boat with minority characters: tradition. The written word has always been subversive. Political and religious pamphlets are the signs of a society changing. Books are censored and banned (which, thank you, only serves to make them more popular). Writers have been the ones who, if they haven’t been the instigators of the discussion, have done their best to keep the discussion going. The discussion doesn’t have to be negative or violent or obscene. Perhaps it’s about spirituality or philosophy: the perfect blend of, say, spiritualism and Eastern mysticism at time when Christianity is not offering much comfort. (Herman Hesse totally nailed this for a lot of readers). Or perhaps it’s one of the early dystopian novels, The Time Machine or Brave New World, cautioning the reader not to get too limited in their thinking. Or perhaps it’s the book that makes the ideal reader laugh very loudly, in public, at Edward Gorey’s murdered children because it’s the right time for said reader to discover their love of black humour.
The ideal writer has all these new ideas, these new perspectives in their head. By writing these new perspectives, the writer can, in a small but radical way, change the world.
But what about fame and fortune? Well, if it’s fortune you’re looking for, fiction is the wrong way to go about it.
As for fame, society doesn’t remember the majority of its members. It’s the minority that become and remain famous—or infamous; it’s the oddballs, the rabble-rousers, the free-thinkers; it’s the six-year-old Jacob Two-twos who are repressed by their family but can still conquer the monsters, the Heathcliffs who are wholly unsuitable lovers yet capture the heart, and the Hannibal Lecters who challenge the leading culinary experts. These are the heroes who remain in our minds.
Does the writer have an obligation to write what they know at all costs? Logically, no: it’s more important to put food on the table, as a dead writer is useless. But, as the average writer does not depend on writing for their living, we can talk about the moral obligation to provide for the reader—the ideal reader, not some random, faceless reader that has no connection to the writer. This moral obligation is dependant on the individual, but the writer should think back over their literary lives to the times when books provided the wherewithal for life.
As writers, we need to find that transparent filament that lies between “yes, we’ll publish your book” and “what do my readers need?” It will be in a different place for each writer, but one can be a writer without a publisher; one cannot be a writer without a reader.
Both reading and writing provide for two needs: the need to be an individual, and the need to belong to a group. We can find and create the characters that cater to our individual tastes and specific needs of the moment, and with those characters we can be in the group we belong in. Think of it not so much as a rocked boat or a frightened horse, but an exceptional perspective of reality that society will remember whenever the topic comes up.
By giving the ideal reader a world in which they belong, a world in which they can safely learn how to be the human they’re meant to be, a world where they can think the things which need to be thought, the writer becomes the ideal writer.