Respecting the Reader

There’s a stack of unread books that moved to New York with me that I’m determined to get through, one way or another. Some are titles I bought for myself; some I picked up because they were free or cheap at library sales; a few were gifted to me, or handed to me because the owner didn’t know what to do with them. Not all of them look interesting to me, but because my parents and I went to the trouble of boxing them up, driving them across the country, and lugging them into my new life, I have resolved to try each and every one of those books (sooner, rather than later).

The latest is Barbara Kingsolver’s collection of essays, Small Wonder. This is one in the pile that I was ambiguous about: I know she is a good–possibly great–contemporary writer, and I have read a novel of hers that I enjoyed (though I can’t exactly recollect what it was about or what I liked). But I tend to like neither collections nor personal non-fiction. I have trouble getting involved in short pieces; I prefer to make an emotional commitment to a long story rather than get excited about a character just to have their story end twenty pages later. And while I can appreciate a good personal essay, I don’t generally find that reading experience as rewarding as a novel.

Like most instances in life, pushing myself to try something a little outside of my comfort zone was a good idea. Flipping through the collection, I stumbled across the essay, What Good is a Story?” that not only meditates on an artistic question that I’ve thought a lot about–what exactly a short story should be and why it is a useful form–but also captures beautifully my own sentiment on writing:

“We are nothing if we can’t respect our readers. It’s audacious, really, to send a new piece of writing out into the world (which already contains Middlemarch) asking readers to sit down, shut up, ignore kids or work or whatever important irons they have in the fire and listen instead to me. Not just for a minute but for hours, days. Whatever I’ve got to say had better be important, worth every minute you’re giving it, with interest.”

I started writing because I wanted more from the books I read–because, essentially, I wanted to tell myself stories. But as I consider the road to publishing, I have realized just what Kingsolver said: if I’m going to ask someone to take the time to read my stories (let alone pay for them), I need to make sure I’m giving the best art, supported by the best craft, I can. And maybe, just maybe, this will give my writing the staying power of a book like Middlemarch.

As for when I am a reader myself, staring down that pile of books, I cling to Kingsolver’s other words of wisdom: “I give a novel thirty pages and if it’s not by that point talking to me of till-death-do-us-part, then sorry, buster, this date’s over.”

2 thoughts on “Respecting the Reader

  1. so well said! This is precisely why I never bothered with the “Infinite Jests” of the literary world. Far too much arrogance contained in those types of books, considering that they are impossible for many people to finish or understand.

  2. Alina, it’s true! I tried reading Infinite Jest–and got a third of the way through–but I just couldn’t keep track of what was happening, and, frankly, I didn’t care. Would I have gotten some intellectual pleasure from figuring out its puzzles? Probably. But that wasn’t worth my time, especially when I could be reading a book (or two or three) in that same amount of time that would be both intellectually and emotionally stimulating.

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