“The American writer has no status, no respect, and no audience.” So observed Philip Roth in a 1984 interview with The Paris Review. Roth didn’t have these problems himself. He was the most celebrated author of his era, winning two National Book Awards (among six overall nominations) as well as a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Any of his lesser literary awards would be a lifetime achievement for another. Even Roth’s detractors could admit Roth was a generational talent. His intense writing style would attract nearly as many critics as fans, but he would remain in the limelight for over fifty years.

Roth wasn’t acquainted with artistic failure, and yet, the fear of it drove him to keep a fanatical writing schedule. He tore up more pages than would appear in one of his novels. Roth saw himself as a working writer, befriending fellow authors and teaching workshops. He understood the sentiment his colleagues had been sharing for years: as prevalent as books are, stacked up all around us, writing is largely an invisible profession.

The world’s bookshelf is infinitely wide, and yet, with the limited attention of the public, the business of art is a zero-sum game. Recognition becomes an insurmountable obstacle. What leads a writer forward is a meager hope: “There’s an ideal reader out there.” This reader naturally connects with one’s writing and enjoys the book. An ideal reader recommends the book to others and writes a glowing review. Even a single ideal reader could, hopefully, lead to dozens, maybe hundreds of sales. Five or ten ideal readers? It could be positively Roth-esque, the start of something approaching a writing career.

The belief in an ideal reader continues. Major writers encourage novelists to think of that person while writing. In the publishing ecosystem, hope springs eternal. Hundreds of writing programs charge writers for tips, tricks, and craft suggestions. The ideal reader concept is a natural part of this pedagogy.

Is there an ideal reader? All great novelists have a legion of fans, which suggests it’s true. We must be Ernest Hemingway’s, J.R.R. Tolkien’s, and J.K. Rowling’s ideal readers.

And yet, any level-headed reader can see flaws in our favorite authors. Hemingway’s writing is a little too dry, Tolkien writes a little too much about walking around, and Rowling, for all her wonderful success, is a little too derivative of Tolkien.

Legendary writers deserve all the credit for writing noteworthy books. But the craft of selling the book, getting recognition for the author, securing favorable reviews, and pushing a title up the sales chart lies with a publisher. A serious amount of marketing muscle is applied to get a book in your hands.

How much of our devotion comes from favorable marketing is up for debate.

It only means we don’t know exactly what to think of famous writers. Their books are culturally important, required reading. We read them. Oftentimes, we see why the publisher bets on them.

The climb to artistic recognition ends at the top. J.K. Rowling doesn’t need an ideal reader anymore. Fans will auto-buy. The ideal reader is more appropriate for up-and-comers. You hope to move from single readers to social pressure creating a psychology where no one dares to miss out.

Until that time comes, it’s comforting to think an ideal reader will come to the rescue. And yet, there’s evidence that this is not a good bet and may pressure a writer to change a book for nothing.

The only reason to chase an ideal reader is if the person can help you.

Have ideal readers elevated any novelists lately? J.K. Rowling was the last major breakout writer, debuting Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in 1997. It’s been nearly thirty years, and we haven’t seen another author rise to her level of prominence. This suggests that no writer can achieve critical mass.

Can writers be blamed? Has writing quality diminished? It’s unlikely. There are more outlets for writing, better instruction, and more books appearing than ever before. Writers continue to ply their trade with no promise of remuneration. Writing may not be dramatically improving, but is it worse?

Blame could be assigned to publishers. Those astronomical marketing budgets that turned penniless authors into household names are a thing of the past. And yet, if a book were selling big, they would find the money.

This is a story about the reader. You shouldn’t blame the customer, but the perfect audience, the ideal reader has disappeared as the act of reading has fundamentally changed.

Do we start with tech obsessions? The publishing industry is shrinking because of fewer readers. You can see it in your own life. You might be a writer. You still read religiously, if slightly less than in years past. How many books did your significant other or friends get through last year? Ask them to check their credit card statements for Kindle downloads versus streaming video services. How many times could an average person rip through War and Peace if Facebook and Instagram didn’t exist?

When you’re told to think of an ideal reader, you’re being advised to change how you write. “What will my hypothetical best friend think?” It’s a motivator to put aside your instinct. Maybe you’re not considering the scene broadly enough. Maybe the character is unlikable in some fatal way. You’ll gain readers by questioning yourself and threading a political needle. How should a writer imagine an ideal reader today? With one eye on a phone.

Which leads to a defensive strategy: Can art be engineered to overcome distraction? Would it ever work? Hollywood has been valiantly trying. Today’s movies are more fast-paced than ever. Action scenes are incredibly short. One study measured the quickening pace of Hollywood movie editing over the years. In the 1950s, a single shot lasted between 10 and 25 seconds. In the mid-2000s, the number had decreased to a mere three seconds.

Many consider the 1940s-50s to be Hollywood’s golden age, a time when editing was narrative-driven. Hollywood today seeks to combat technology with tricks. It hasn’t worked. Adjusted for inflation, the modern box office loses to older movies. The highest grossing? The original Star Wars (1977).

What would movies look like if Hollywood ignored the pressure? Would the stories become more relatable and compelling? It’s a question for aspiring novelists. How would a manuscript read if a writer refused to second-guess decisions? What if the ideal reader were shown the door in a writer’s mind?

It’s a difficult temptation to ignore. A comforting thought for any writer is the reward of someone reading you closely. It’s an idea that draws many writers to the keyboard. If you adapt your book to the mentality of an imaginary ideal reader, you can expect the reader to absorb every word and go over your best sentences more than once. It’s what makes a reader ideal, right? They pick up what we’re laying down. When the reader finishes, we’ll receive an email filled with poignant observations.

Authors share friendly emails and letters from fans. It’s a gift from above when a reader praises a novel. Maybe it will happen to us. What changes could we make to ensure that it does? Do we put the ideal reader in charge?

If so, who is this ideal person? A mentor? A person we met ten years ago? Trends show that fans of literary fiction are usually female, between the ages of 25 and 65. You may or may not be able to imagine an ideal reader exactly like yourself. Your hope is for an emotional connection, a literary simpatico.

Even if you find it, the reading demographic is ever-changing. Older people age out by passing away or encountering health problems that sideline their reading habits. Who will replace these readers? We’re aware of the trend of high schoolers graduating without being able to read or write. For those who can, there’s a question of how well-educated they are. Literary writers, especially, rely on readers who are aware of their world. It includes an interest in history, culture, and art. Can today’s school system keep up?

Genre writers may ask less of their audience. As they lower the difficulty of their writing, literary writing will seem even more difficult. It’s not paranoid to worry about whether a reader is up to the task of reading a serious novel.

One might reply, “But they say Ernest Hemingway wrote at a fourth-grade reading level. Anyone can understand his writing.”

It’s likely true for syntax, and yet, literary writing is about inference and symbolism. In the controversial story “Hills like White Elephants,” the text is simple. The meaning is elusive.

It’s a legitimate concern. Everyone who pursues art wants to succeed. Writers who pursue an ideal reader might betray their ideals and come up empty.

There’s evidence the ideal reader is a fiction. It’s likely the world has become too fractured and intelligent readers too scarce to target a viewpoint upon which your success rests. Advocates of the ideal reader may argue, shouldn’t the reader who devotes valuable time to a book call the shots? Shouldn’t you write for someone other than yourself? Considering your audience step by step in the writing process is a savvy way to increase the value of your writing, the smart money says.

It makes so much sense, and yet nothing about the writing process does. Is writing speculative fiction a smart move? Do readers pick up new books because it’s a good use of time? Does the pursuit of fiction make sense at all?

Art is a mystery, a coalescence of the rational and the sublime. It’s a process where the way forward often isn’t a door but a trap door. Artists have historically told us the opposite of common sense proved to be most valuable. For writers, it’s a fact most will fail to find a readership whatever they do. Why not strike out by trusting your instincts? For being 100% you?

Your unique take on the world is all you have to offer. A truly ideal reader doesn’t want a mind reader. Instead, readers want a writer to pursue a vision fully. Art isn’t a focus group. No one knows what they enjoy until they see it.

Philip Roth showed an unusual model for success: be elusive, be original. The Paris Review asked, “Do you have a Roth reader in mind when you write?”

The most celebrated writer of his generation answered this way.

“No. I occasionally have an anti-Roth reader in mind. I think, ‘How he is going to hate this!’ That can be just the encouragement I need.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *