Can you really be The Reader if you’re critiquing somebody else’s writing? Pure readers aren’t looking to improve the piece they’re reading. They only care about the story. If it works on an emotional level. All the technical reasoning behind a critique is nothing more than speed bumps to readers. Of course, too many speed bumps and people look for alternate routes. But basically, writers are not The Reader.
There. I’ve said it.
I understand what people mean, again, I’ve used the royal The Reader while critiquing other people’s work. But there’s something disingenuous about the term. At its best it’s a vague deflection, at its worst it’s a narcissistic, self-aggrandizing title without any foundation in reality.
Backstory: I need help writing. I try to get it from wherever I can. And I’ve heard the term from many, many people. One that prompted this new line of thought was a thorough, exceedingly helpful person who used The Reader scores of times to illustrate places that were confusing. As I read her comments there were a few parts that I thought might not be as confusing as stated. But how could I argue with The Reader?
Wait a second… It was only ever her.
Speaking as The Reader is a common qualifier at writing conferences and groups. I look past it to the meat of the comments and honestly, many more times than not, I can pull the positive meaning out of the critique. Editors and agents often describe things in terms of The Reader, too. Maybe that’s why novices like to use the term. I tend to cut industry insiders a little slack, but the same premise holds true. After all, Harry Potter was rejected by, what, twelve agents? Readers often surprise agents. Rarely to billion-dollar degrees. Not saying anything against the agents who passed on Harry Potter. Perhaps the story wasn’t a good fit for them or their agencies and they knew it. That’s being responsible.
Couching a comment from the perspective of The Reader does a couple things. First, it gives authority to the critiquer. The writer is in a subordinate position anyhow allowing someone else, often strangers, to judge a piece of art. Armored by the perspective of The Reader, the critiquer states a personal opinion as if it comes from the entire English reading population of Earth. The subjectivity of an opinion approaches zero as the sample size becomes all. An opinion from The Reader is not an opinion, but fact and the writer cannot disagree with the factual opinions of an entire planet.
Secondly, the term The Reader protects the critiquer from criticism. It’s a way for a person to say what they may not otherwise say. Let’s face it, this is a cruel business. Art is subjective, money is tight and human nature is petty. It is hard to say some of the things critiquers feel they need to say. I mean, we’re only trying to help each other. Strictly speaking. I know I’ve said things, based on a moral obligation to destroy because I only want to help.
But that was The Reader. Not me. I would never say things like that.
Without this, The Reader, to fall back on people would have to own their own ignorance. And who wants to show their ignorance? Nobody.
I’ve made the choice to announce my critiques as My Opinion. The comments are easier to shoot down as the ravings of an egotistical sociopath, but I’ve also come to the conclusion that my comments are not for me. I don’t need to convince anyone that my preferences regarding their work are better than their own. It’s not politics.
Oh, wait, it never works there, either.
The other side of this coin is proclaiming what agents do and don’t want. That’s the mystery in this industry. I’ve written tons of words, mostly in order with nonstop killing and sex. Why aren’t agents signing my enormous advances?
Because they’re smart business people.
I was in a group and one story of the bunch used a lot of dialect. In dialog and narrative. Someone said that agents don’t like dialect. My picky antennae prickled. I’ve heard that before and from well-placed authorities, but I cannot say specifically what agents want in a story. I haven’t hit the right chord, myself. I do know what they want from life. They want money. They want to sell the best story they can for the most money possible and if a dialect larded story is an unequivocal masterpiece, some agent will pick it up.
Speaking from The Agents’ perspective is a little different than The Readers’. Agents go to conferences, post on websites and plead with the writing community to deliver what they want. Critiquing other people’s work from The Agents’ perspective might be a little more realistic, but again, it’s leaning on the authority of industry leaders to stress a personal opinion.
So when someone says Agents don’t want dialect, space opera, or dreamy vampire love triangles, trust that for the right price everything works. And double trust that the right price is predicated on superlative skill.
I love writers. I haven’t met another group of people as imaginative that come from as many places, geographically, occupationally, or educationally. They’re interesting people who live amazing lives with a spark inside that wants to share abstract ideas. I love these people. It’s the group I identify with most closely. It’s just this one issue that I’ve head thousands of times, that I’ve said too many times myself, that got me thinking in a wider scope and made me face my own abilities with honesty and humility.
Writers have to own their words, both on the page and to their kind. And on that one day, when any single person can confidently speak for The Reader, that’s the day a dystopian novel opens and leads to the overthrow of a cruel and narrow-minded tyrant.