Writerly Attitudes: The Right To A Reader’s Attention

In one of my fiction workshops, we took a look at Tobias Wolff’s short story Sister. I possibly caught on to the keys to unlocking the meaning of the story, but my cohorts mostly scratched their heads. One reader said, “I didn’t know what the point of the story was.” And that killed me. I never want someone to read my novel and think, “Well, what the hell was that all about?”

In my view, a reader must profit from my novel. They should be entertained by it, at the very least. Even better if they should come away from it having gained something, whether they had an emotional experience, learned something new, gained a new perspective, or in some other way enriched their lives.

But I believe that I must earn the right to my reader’s attention. I am, after all, competing with television and movies. I mustn’t ever find myself so hubristic as to believe that the reader must endure parts of my novel. And as such, I believe that part of my job as a writer is to entertain. Only after I have entertained my reader and successfully drawn her into my world do I have the right to give her a little bit of what I want to really want to say. To make a statement about the world is a privilege that must be earned. Reading a novel is a longer journey than watching a movie or a television show. Time is precious. And I respect my reader’s time. That is why I wouldn’t dare waste his or her time with self-indulgent passages. As a writer, I strive to be economical and entertaining. I am ruthless with deletion. 

I view the act of reading fiction as a sort of negotiation between the reader and the author. The reader asks, “I am going to put myself in your hands for the next 250 pages, why should I do that?” And the writer says, “Because I am going to try my very best to make you happy, because I am going to act in your best interests.” As a writer, you must understand that the reader is making a commitment to read your work. They are investing time and mental focus to do so, two things that are becoming an increasing premium in this fast-paced world that we live in now. Thus, the writer must never let his or her own ego guide the writing process. I’ve written many beautiful passages of prose and many compelling scenes, but I tore them out of my novel because I knew that it just didn’t belong. Ego and self-indulgence is why the movie The Wolf of Wall Street was three hours long. Scorsese could’ve deleted much of the movie, but he was so fond of his actors’ performances that he demanded that we share his love. He placed his own desires above his audience’s. There were so many scenes in that movie where I asked myself, “Okay, and why is this here?” They were entertaining, I suppose, but they didn’t seem to be placed there in service of the story.

So that’s one precept to write by: you must earn the right to your reader’s attention, and it will be hard work to earn it.

Author’s Note: This might be the start of some shorter pieces speaking on my attitude towards writing.