[Okay. Procrastination time is over. Big philosophical treatise starts now:]
A while back I had a chance to read Farhad Manjoo’s “You Won’t Finish This Article.” Ironically, I DID, in fact, finish the article, and I even read through all the extra graphs Manjoo claims he included for kicks, and all the whining-that’s-supposed-to-be-a-joke-but-you-know-there’s-a-kernel-of-truth-there commentary that Manjoo indulges in about how he “spend[s] a lot of time and energy writing these stories.” I spend a lot of time and energy writing, too, and I do it all for free. But never mind that right now.
The reason why I stuck with Manjoo’s piece, even though his title dared me not to,is that the article presents research on the reading habits of Internet users. Apparently, among the pool of readers that lands on an article, only a small percentage will go on to finish reading what they’re looking at. About half of users will “bounce” off an article’s page–that is, will click on a link and then leave the page instantly–and another large chunk will read the first few paragraphs and then move on, possibly to tweet or retweet the link to the article they didn’t finish. (Yes, that’s right: many Twitter users will share a link to an article when they haven’t fully vetted the content they’re supposedly endorsing. Probably, they’re just tweeting a headline because it’s funny or awesome or cute or terrifying. Isn’t that what Twitter’s for?)
Manjoo bewails this state of things, because goshdarnit, he works hard to pump out all these explorations of important issues affecting the world, and what do you readers do but skim the first paragraph then jump down to the comments and bitch about some opinion I’ve already tackled/supported/invalidated further down the page! I’m a well-published, experienced journalist with lots of interesting things to say! Why aren’t you listening to me???
Well, let me tell you, Farhad: that’s the Writer You talking. I know this because Writer Me is burning with the same outrage all the time. Every writer does. From when we’re very young, we’re trained that whatever we commit to paper (or blog or message board) MUST be read by someone else in order to be validated. Why else would anyone take the time to write down her thoughts in the first place if they didn’t think they would be glanced upon ever again–even by her own eyes? Thus it comes to pass that we writers think whatever we do happen to jot down ought, in a fair and just universe, to be read, if not appreciated and worshiped for the great work of literature it is.
Farhad, I’m sure that, in the same way that every writer over the age of eight has done, you’ve come to realize that readers hardly ever show writers the respect they’re due. Words on a page do not equal instant acknowledgment. Rarely do they even merit instant notice. The reason?
Readers are Fickle.
Like feral creatures, readers roam print and virtual landscapes, sniff a sentence here and there, and meander on if the words don’t strike their fancy. And even though you would think that readers, being literate and civilized, would at least give an idea written by a fellow literate person the chance to grow and bloom, the truth is that there are so many other collections of words growing on the plains that readers don’t have to wait around–they can simply amble to the next juicy clump of written goodness.
Face it, Farhad: readers don’t owe you squat.
I don’t mean to pick on Manjoo exclusively here. Other professional writers have said or implied the same thing: Here is the Work I’ve Written. Go forth, all ye readers, and Read. Look at the brouhaha Lynne Shepherd created when she opined that J.K. Rowling ought to stop writing books because her work is clogging up the market.* Although most critics, including comment board denizens, focused on Shepherd’s audacity in telling the likes of Rowling what to do, many seemed to miss the true point of Shepherd’s screed: to ask Rowling very politely not to write any more detective stories so that she (Shepherd) won’t have to compete with the uber-legendary creator of Harry Potter. What Shepherd herself misses, of course, is that readers aren’t going to give a book by Shepherd any more of a chance whether or not Rowling (or Robert Galbraith) is in the mix. No matter how much time, energy, or money (and I suspect Shepherd has a lot of money) you invest in the publication process, if readers don’t like the book you produce they’re still going to ignore it.
And I’m not the only one to state this bleak writerly reality, either. In 2010, Laura Miller, a book reviewer for Salon, published an absolutely scathing piece about NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, stating that people who attempt to write a novel in a month are basically wasting their time:
Even authors who achieve what probably seems like Nirvana to the average NaNoWriMo participant — publication by a major house — will, for the most part, soon learn this dispiriting truth: Hardly anyone will read their books and next to no one will buy them.
Comments on Miller’s article–a large quantity of which support NaNoWriMo–mostly accuse her of snobbery and unfairness, of being a condescending professional writer biased toward “plebes” who dare not only to write but to bring their work to the public. But does Miller have any better long-term advice for writing elites, like those who come from MFA programs? Nope. “MFA programs,” says Miller in a 2014 Salon article,
create a bubble for the writers who enroll in them, but what these writers are protected from isn’t either the blistering reader reviews of Amazon or the swashbuckling critical crusaders of the legit press. Instead, pretty much by definition, the workshop world fails to prepare writers for what they will almost certainly face outside it: indifference and silence.
As for Miller’s own work as a reviewer, she writes that publishers send her a total of 20 to 30 titles per day. Then she compares that staggering statistic with the number of books that the average book-buyer has to choose from. With those odds, it’s hard to comprehend how the average reader will ever light on a single work,not to mention yours, even if you’ve got the prettiest cover, the best blurbs, or a sales team full of caffeine-addicted talking dingos.
Miller’s bottom line: “It is the author’s first responsibility to persuade me, and the rest of the world’s readers, that he or she deserves our attention and our time.”
Writers, repeat this to yourselves early and often.
Readers don’t owe you squat.
At the same time, you shouldn’t let this debilitatingly bleak truth get you down, writers. There’s a silver lining to the fickleness of readers that, right this second, I bet you’re too busy drowning in despair to see:
All you writers out there? You’re readers, too.
To be continued…
*Although I myself have defended Shepherd against Rowling-obsessed trolls downgrading Shepherd’s books purely on the basis of her anti-Harry Potter blasphemy, I still find Shepherd’s argument one of the dumbest and self serving I’ve heard in a long time.