The reader, on the couch, reads a paragraph, underlines, looks up at the painting, smiles, thinks, imagines what she might say to the writer, goes back to the book. The experience of reading is like an intimate conversation. The writer often says things the reader has thought, or thinks she has thought. It is as if the writer understands her. The writer is there yet inaccessible, as if behind a glass wall.
But the writer is not there and does not understand the reader. In fact, the writer does not even know the reader, does not see through the glass; maybe it is tinted.
Aware that the writer has no idea what she is thinking, the reader may try to express a few of her thoughts in a fan letter. The writer probably doesn’t understand who the “I” who "loved" her book really is or why this “I” feels so close to her.
The writer doesn’t reply, and the reader’s feeling of being understood shifts to the other imaginary extreme: misunderstanding. The reader also considers the possibility that the writer does understand, knows exactly how she feels, and doesn’t care. Whatever the reader’s rationalization for her unanswered letter, she feels more alone than before she sent it.
A wise reader might just stop sending letters of appreciation to writers, but this reader/I was not wise. “How could a writer not want to know that I like her book?” I thought. “And THIS writer really seems to understand me.” Maybe this time it will be different.
I once went to a reading where an author read an essay about writing and intimacy. The space-collapsing closeness of letter writing. The hurt feeling when correspondence is broken off and one continues composing thoughts directed toward the other person but can’t send them. Lastly and most importantly, the intimacy between writer and reader, the kind of intimacy that the writer of the essay said she strove to achieve.
I had to send this writer a note, I thought. This writer understood me, said what I was thinking, knew how I felt when I wanted to tell someone something but couldn’t, because the other person didn’t want to talk to me anymore. The way my end of the conversation was still there and the estranged one was still there in my head, but the real connection was gone. The way the mental lingering of the supposedly severed connections proved that even when those connections were intact, they were also part illusion.
That last part may not have been in the essay read aloud that night. All I have is my memory of the piece, anyway, likely influenced by what I wanted to hear and to remember.
The author didn’t write me back.
In person, the writer is signing books in a stereotyped fashion. In person, the writer definitely doesn’t know the reader. “You’re the closest anyone alive gets to Virginia Woolf,” the reader gushes, and the writer, perhaps embarrassed, interrupts to ask the reader’s name. So she can write it in the book. The reader leaves feeling closer to the writers she’s never met and never will than to the one whose acquaintance she has just made.
What the reader thinks of as common ground between herself and the writer slips away when she tries to stand on it.
The connection to the writer’s work remains, though it feels a bit wilted. The reader sees that part of what she loved about the work was the feeling, the illusion, that the writer understood her, and now that illusion is either broken or, if not broken exactly, labeled for what it is.
A bit of backpedaling is in order. Some writers do reach through the glass; a hand makes ripples on the surface like a finger on a smartphone screen. I have received personal and empathetic replies from writers, and they are just about as wonderful I imagined they would be.
I fear that this piece comes off as a complaint against writers who are behind on email, and I don’t mean it that way. I mean to describe the odd relationship, or connection, or lack thereof, between the reader and the writer, in which the reader feels an illusion of closeness to a writer whose words she knows but who doesn’t know her, the reader, at all.
While making concessions, I should say that I have always been the sort of person who has only a few close friends. It’s entirely possible that the pane of glass between me and writers I admire is the same one that separates me from lots of people. Yet I think there is something about my experience that relates as much to the archetypal reader-writer relationship as it does to this writer’s personality.
This is the situation: There is the reader on the couch. There is the book. There is a third character, the writer as the reader imagines her, as the reader invents her, based on her writing and the reader’s tendencies, fantasies, ideals, prejudices.
It’s the clash between the writer-as-imaginary-friend and the writer as a flesh-and-blood stranger that creates a sense of loneliness. The recurrent thought that, in fact, the reader doesn’t know Living Writer X any better than she knows the long-dead Virginia Woolf, though she feels the same way toward both of them. The following thought that even if Woolf were alive, the reader wouldn’t know her, and even if she did, Woolf would probably not be as the reader had imagined. It might be better, or it might feel better, not to know a writer whose work one loves. That’s also a lonely thought: that all these seemingly like-minded writers that the reader imagines might like her, if they knew her, wouldn’t necessarily. It’s the loss of hypothetical friends, potential friends: loneliness upon loneliness.
Why is the myth-busting so hard to take, if not on an intellectual level, on an emotional one? One reason may be that the illusion is built into the writing, particularly nonfiction writing in the first person. The better the writing, the better the reader can imagine the writer and the stronger the illusion of knowing that writer. The stronger an illusion, the less one recognizes it as such.
With fiction, at least, the reader knows that however believable the characters are, she has to separate them from the rest of the world. She can’t think of them as representing the writer and the writer’s life, or as standing in for anything outside the book. It’s as if there is a big sign saying: “Don’t be deluded.” (The reader may not heed it, though. She may still feel that because she cares about and identifies with a novel’s first-person narrator that the novelist will care about her, personally.)
In nonfiction, too, writers create characters, and even make characters out of themselves. But there, the “Do not be deluded” sign is gone. Because the "I" character in nonfiction has the same name and biography as the author, it’s easy for a reader to feel that because she understands the “I” on the page and the “I” on the page seems to understand her that the sense of understanding would be reified in person. The same feeling can come out of third-person nonfiction, in which there is no “‘I’ on the page.” The reader thinks, “Oh, I see the situation the same way the author does. I get the way this person thinks. I get this person.”
But that sense of sharing the writer’s perspective is more a sign of good writing than one of a unique reader-writer connection. I began to suspect this when I realized, sheepishly, that I couldn’t possibly think “just like” the five or so different authors whose writing I liked and felt a connection to. Those writers made me feel as if I saw the world the way they did, and I thought it was generally true. What’s more likely is that I saw the worlds they created in their writing the way they presented them to me. The better the writing, the stronger the illusion.
That’s why the illusion of knowing the writer, and of being known by the writer, is not such a bad thing. It can be a great pleasure. Furthermore, there is some kind of understanding between reader and writer. Maybe in those moments of reading, one does think a little bit like Joan Didion thought while she was typing and retyping “Goodbye To All That.” One gets to try on the writer’s way of thinking. By reading a writer’s thoughts, one can come to understand the writer’s ideas and to empathize with her and her characters in situations she describes. But that connection doesn’t hold beyond the book. No matter how clear the image of the writer in the reader’s mind, the glass wall always remains. The wall is the book. The wall is a mirror of the reader, but as influenced by the writer’s work. The wall is some kind of funhouse mirror that reflects the reader through the filter of the writer and—surprise!—is entirely made up.
If readers ever write to me in response to my writing, I imagine that I will respond the way most writers do, with a thank you and best wishes, both sincere, but with little idea of the person I’m thanking and wishing well.
Sometimes I think, “Well, if I can’t talk to the writer, I can talk to another reader, ideally some I know well enough to have a conversation with.” That doesn’t usually work either. The person hasn’t read what I’ve read (and the reverse), or they don’t like the books I like, or they don’t seem to be really listening. They are thinking about something else, something I don’t understand. Maybe they feel misunderstood by me. They, like writers, are real people, and real people are rarely as one imagines.
Seeking friends that match fantasies probably leads to solitude. Only imaginary friends are as one imagines them.
That's not to say that it’s impossible for a reader to be friends with a writer whose work she likes. It’s just that the basis of the friendship would not be the realization of the reader’s fantasy. It would not necessarily be about the writer’s work, either. There’s no telling, no imagining what it might be.
My own illusion boils down to this: “It seems to me that this writer and I are like-minded and have interests in common. Maybe we could become friends.” The problem is that friendship depends on much more than like-mindedness. For example, once, when I was particularly interested in food and cooking and spent most of my free time in the kitchen, I lived with two other women who also liked to cook. They liked making things. They were New Englanders, like me. One was a professional baker. I thought we would be friends, but no. The baker and I spent days alone together in the house. I tried to talk to her, sometimes, but it always felt like I was imposing on her by being friendly. I did read her copy of M.F.K. Fisher’s The Art of Eating, which was on the shared cookbook shelf. In reality, I had a better rapport with the third roommate, a physicist and avid biker from the Midwest—who was and is a nice person.
As my predictions about friendship with these roommates proved incorrect, so it can be with writers. Just because a reader thinks, from a writer’s work, that she would get along with a writer doesn’t mean that she will or that she will even have the chance to try.
If like-mindedness alone is not enough to base a friendship upon, then what are the bases of friendship? I don’t know exactly: meeting someone, mutual kindness, a shared sense of humor? Free time and somewhat compatible schedules? The interests friends share may be the most basic ones, like eating and drinking. Old friends or people who grew up in the same place can connect over shared memories. Friends are, first of all, people whose personal lives overlap, by chance, choice, or some combination of the two.
Readers are often discouraged from paying too much attention to writers’ personal lives because they aren’t relevant to the writing. I wonder if for friendship, though, it’s the personal side of life that matters most. Perhaps when it comes to friendship, a writer’s work isn’t just a poor predictor of compatibility; maybe it’s irrelevant. If that’s true, one can see how difficult it would be to shift from reader to friend: as a reader relating to a writer, the subjects likely to lead to friendship are essentially off-limits.
“Already-Unlikely Friendship Destroyed By Overthinking” reads the imaginary headline.
The greatest literary intimacy a reader can have is with the book itself, or with herself while reading the book. And that’s a good thing, a wonderful thing, since books, one can take anywhere, and books don’t die, and hey, one can’t predecease oneself. If the reader is lucky, she will always have her own mind. Books are ideal companions in many ways. The reader may imagine that hanging out with a writer would be better than reading her work, but that’s an illusion, and a boring one in comparison to those that literature so amply supplies.