Although I would hardly make a case for them as objective categories, and certainly not pure oppositions, when I think about who reads (or listens to) my writing, I tend to distinguish between two concepts: an audience and a reader.
Audience, to my mind, implies a certain size; it’s defined first and foremost by numbers. It’s therefore a deeply capitalist, bureaucratic concept. The moment that numbers of readers are the base issue, an work of literature has become a product whose effects, as a product, are measurable. How many units produced and sold, what name recognition was gained and in what venues, who made or lost money; who showed up for the reading and who paid for it; all are related to notions of audience. An audience is a demographic, a social segment that can be categorized, sometimes very specifically (as in a niche market, for instance). But however specifically defined, a demographic always remains to some degree faceless, a mass. Or it if has a face, it has many faces simultaneously, seen from the distance of the performer on a stage or the bookstore cashier who sells copies of a book to a line of customers. An audience may admire a work, love it, may worship or even fantasize about its creator (or replacing its creator), but the sense of distance remains essential. If there is an encounter between people—and there is—it always takes places across the distance of the produced moment and all the mechanisms that go into producing it.
My notion of a reader is more intimate, or perhaps better, conversational. If audience is always at least part mass, a reader is always specific, a particular person with a particular history who engages with the writing in a unique way. And perhaps engages even with the writer: there might be a conversation, a direct give and take about the work. I’m always pleased if someone tells me they like my writing, but it’s even more interesting when they say something specific about their reaction, what the work led them to think, or to do, to criticize or embrace. I don’t want to sentimentalize such moments; they can also be disturbing. I’ve thought more than once, “How could somebody possibly say that?” Still, and whatever my own relation to my writing, in such conversations I get a sense of the specific and often surprising effect of that writing in a world of others. The possibility of engaged conversation is important to me, whether about literature or any other topic. It’s a moment of close contact between people on a subject of shared interest to them. I don’t think it goes too far to say that good conversation has been one of my life’s central pleasures, and often a conscious goal. My writing itself often feels like part of a conversation.
But I’m a non-purist. I’m even anti-purist at times, while trying not to act too pure about being anti-purist. I’ve read to large audiences, and it can be great. I know that books are produced at a cost, that money is part of how books reach readers, that to insist on having readers while rejecting audiences implies a privatized mechanics of exchange that doesn’t escape capitalism so much as it has its own economic and social features, some potentially questionable. I want people to pick up copies of my books, and having an audience can help a writer have readers. At its best, an audience is nothing more than a gathering of individuals who want to listen. Besides, the image of being stuck in a room, surrounded by three or four people who have been reading my work over a lifetime, seems more like a dream of hell than heaven, unless good food and drink is involved. I don’t want my work’s value defined only by some in-crowd. I want it out in the larger world as well.
There’s finally a certain degree of the unknown involved in the idea of a reader. Quite seriously, I never know who will read my books, or why. Some of my colleagues and close friends don’t read them (they know me too well to need to hear more from me, maybe) whereas every now and then I’ll meet someone who’s been reading them closely for awhile and has a lot to say. I remember once reading an interview in Talisman with Gustav Sobin in which he said the ideal reader of his work was a 19-year old woman. That’s a funny answer in more ways than one (and a little, um, telling, although maybe you gotta admire his honesty if nothing else). But it helped remind me that I don’t have an image of my ideal reader, or even want one. In thinking about audiences and readers, there’s something crucial about the fact that writers never really know who’s reading their work, or what readers are going to do with what they’ve read. If I personally finally prefer a reader to an audience, that’s not simply because I can have a conversation only with a reader. It’s also because I may not know that reader yet. The concept of a reader includes not just the pleasure of conversation with those we know but also the important truth that the world and the people in it contain as yet unrealized possibilities for human contact.