Disclaimer: Like many a writer before me, I have composed a lament fueled by a tumbler of Irish whiskey. Unlike more indulgent writers, I have thankfully avoided its novelization.
One advantage of the writer’s medium is that you don’t need anyone else to create art. (Except indirectly, to teach or stimulate.) Not having to depend on other people is an undeniable advantage. However, writing—by itself—lacks strong performance aspects, unlike every other artistic medium besides still visual media like painting, photography, drawing, and sculpting, which at least have the great benefit of prompting visceral reactions, and can be “shown” as a result.
Think about it. Even architecture and design show themselves off. Music, theatre, and film make performances easy, of course. Recorded media have particularly low barriers to accessible performance—just play it, any time you like.
Writing is alone in supplying bound stacks of pages full of words—or, fine, words on the screen—that sit there, unless you-the-reader make them interesting.
(The absence of performance I’m talking about applies to both artistic fiction, artistic non-fiction, and poetry, by the way—readings don’t count.)
So, it’s up to the reader whether they will supply their own “performance” by doing justice to reading—by supplying immersion, thought, imagination, participatory feeling, experimental interpretations, even looking up words one doesn’t know. Depending on the reader’s state of mind, a significant book to read can put one off, or seem like an opportunity.
In fact, writers are incredibly dependent on their audience. This is something I frankly did not appreciate adequately when I started experimenting with non-fiction philosophy fifteen years ago, or when I started writing a large novel of ideas in 2004. You see, no matter how well a writer—and to be quite honest, I think first of my own experience—labors and learns and struggles to do his job, writing is simply there, without someone willing to discover its charms, and all that it may have to offer.
Writing depends on readers to create art, because art without performance is only half-realized. Sure, there is a solipsistic sense in which I am wrong; certainly, whether or not his writing is exposed to readers, a writer can read and appreciate his own work, and from a uniquely informed perspective as well. But what would you think about a film that only the crew could appreciate? A painting that could not be shown?
Writing that doesn’t challenge the reader makes minimal demands on their own reading, and all that might imply. That explains its popularity in modern times with modern readers—time-starved, poorly educated, and lazy readers alike. Even blogs were a kind of compromise, upon other compromises on the web, in magazines, and other disposable print that attempted to make reading easy, dumbed-down, entertaining, and probably illustrated. It’s not a matter of length, though—long potboiler novels will do, if they shamelessly cater to sideshow entertainment and shock value at every turn, if they imitate, and never challenge with much literary complexity or experimentation.
But overly-accessible, disposable, and thin writing really fails at providing an opportunity on the other end of a book from the writer’s job to create that opportunity. It wasn’t art for the writer to write it, and it isn’t art for the reader to read it. Why not? Art can be difficult because it implies demands. Such writing avoids that at all costs.
I hate to see so many writers going in that direction, and even more so, I really lament the increasing rarity of readers who want to read art and participate in art.
Writing can be art. Reading can be art. Putting great writing together with great reading is a wonderful thing. But I wonder whether one would become useless, even absurd, without the other.