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Do Writers and Readers Have Duties?

An interesting Guardian article ponders the question of what makes a good writer and examines the responsibilities of both writer and reader.

…the duty of writers is to please readers and to be eager to do so, and this duty has various subsets: the duty to be clear; to be interesting and intelligent but never wilfully obscure; to write with the average reader in mind; to be in good taste. Above all, the modern writer has a duty to entertain.

Personally, I have no objection to books that entertain and please, that are clear and interesting and intelligent, that are in good taste and are not wilfully obscure – but neither do these qualities seem to me in any way essential to the central experience of fiction, and if they should be missing, this in no way rules out the possibility that the novel I am reading will yet fulfil the only literary duty I care about. For writers have only one duty, as I see it: the duty to express accurately their way of being in the world.

A novel is a two-way street, in which the labour required on either side is, in the end, equal. Reading, done properly, is every bit as tough as writing – I really believe that. As for those people who align reading with the essentially passive experience of watching television, they only wish to debase reading and readers.

There are some good points made in this article, but it seems to me that its author forgot one thing: different people look for different things in reading. Not everyone is looking to “allow into their own mind a picture of human consciousness so radically different from their own as to be almost offensive to reason.” Even further, I would argue that any single individual can opt for a wide spectrum of reading experiences from different titles. Is there nobody who likes both T.S. Eliot and and “lowbrow” fiction?

Call me judgmental, but this smacks of literary snobbery. Does reading always have to be about art? Can’t entertainment sometimes be the “central experience”? Hey, I like literature as much as the next guy. But I’m also the guy who’s still giggling at the word “duties”.

[via Backwards City]

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

2 Comments on Do Writers and Readers Have Duties?

  1. I return to this topic time and again in my life. I’m torn. I think it depends on the author and how effective they are.

    For instance, I think James Joyce is a shmuck whose work, once deciphered, isn’t worth all the effort. His wife asked him why he didn’t write books people could understand and I agree. He was much better pre-Ulysses.

    Now, on the other hand, I enjoy poetry which makes me work out the details, but only if they’re necessarily obscure. T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland is not one of those works; again, it simply doesn’t pay off.

    I’m reading Hesse right now. I love him and always have. He deals in ideas, none of which are easily digested, all of which are accessible given some thought. He’s a writer who doesn’t dumb himself down and still manages to speak to the reader.

    A friend of mine is reading Pynchon’s V right now. He’s a guy who enjoys working for his fiction. I’ve never read Pynchon, but I’d be curious how some of you guys would compare him to the authors I’ve mentioned.

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