I WAS ASKED the other day who I imagined my ideal reader to be. “Well,” I answered – “I hadn’t really thought about that.” Not exactly a stellar reply, I know. Of course I had a half-formed, all-wispy-like inkling of my readers. Tween girls, not on the list. Marxist-Leninists? Not so much. The Nobel Literature Prize Review Board and the editors of Vanity Fair? Hell yes … one day. Well, now I’m curious – just who is my IDEAL reader?
When I started this website in 2012, I called it “Acquired Tastes.” That’s a reliable indicator of how I saw my work at the time – and how I still see it today, five hundred articles later. My ideal reader is, I suspect, a bit of an oddity. Intellectually curious, and with a wide range of personal interests. A dabbler. Prefers the gray to the black and white (that’s where all the intellectual and aesthetic treasure is found), yet has very definite principles and opinions (which, let’s face it, makes for better debate). My ideal reader has life experience, but with a mind that isn’t like an old couch, with a deep-ass cup from years of always taking up the same position.
When my ideal reader comes into the room – wait a minute. What do I do with this he/she business? My ideal writer is neither a man nor a woman. I mean, sure, you’re very likely one or the other, dear ideal friend. But my ideal writer cares a lot about language, pays careful attention to words, and is thoughtful enough to know that gender is not a box – or at least it’s not a box that everyone can tick. In fact, my ideal writer hates boxes and cliché and convention and black-and white. But I mentioned that, didn’t I?
So … when my ideal reader comes into the room, he or she is expecting an interesting conversation. The topic is less important than the company and the attitude and the journey. Ideal reader, I understand that you would rather be challenged than flattered, and I respect that. You want the very best that I can deliver, without pandering or bullshit or affectation. You don’t want me to tell you what I think you want to hear. Authenticity is important. You’d rather perish than be exposed as a moral and intellectual coward, and if I’m wasting your time by being anything other than my true self, you won’t put up with it.
Some will find you arrogant. But I know that it’s passion that drives you, and that you think it’s an insult to talk to others as if they’re imbeciles who can’t handle your truth. You don’t want to be talked down to that way. You’ve come here for grown-up conversation, and you expect a no-holds-barred approach to the flow of ideas. When you see bullshit, you call bullshit. You return every blow with a blow of at least equal force. You want everything I’ve got, nothing held back. Here you’re likely to pull out a quote, like “what I want is ‘the feast of reason and the flow of soul.'” Good one, that.
Language is serious play. Ideal reader, you have a warped and whimsical side. You’re well aware that absurdity lurks in the crevices of everything human. Even when you’re dead serious, and you often are, irony and humour are important to you. Without them, life is mechanical. It’s drudgery. So you want everything to be questioned, and you appreciate subversion and irreverence. On the one hand, there are a lot of things that piss you off, and that you wish you could change. You have just enough foolish idealism in you that you’ll give it a try. But on the other hand, you never allow yourself to lose sight of aesthetic delight. It’s not good enough to have an argument: the language in which it’s articulated must have vitality and aesthetic appeal. Life isn’t all work – it’s a lot of play, too. You undertake both with relish. (You know that I know you’re trying to think of a pun involving condiments.)
“Are you a conservative, a liberal, or what?” This question strikes you as futile. You didn’t come here just to have your own ideas confirmed. It isn’t that you don’t have definite ideas and principles – it’s just that you’re not the kind of person who drifts comfortably into the crowd, the party or the herd. In a room full of liberals you’re likely to say something provocative about moral relativism, and in a room full of conservatives you’re likely to point out that Marx was right about a lot of things. You don’t do this to be a dick (but face it, you and I really can be a dick when we choose, which sometimes we do); you do it because you’ve thought a lot about it and you really think it’s objectively true. And you get really uncomfortable in a room of people who all think alike, so as a reader you want new perspectives.
You read to form bonds with writers you respect, and you respect writers only when they live up to the reader-writer contract – to give their very best to you, day in and day out, no excuses. Never mind editors and booksellers and literary critics and public opinion polls, you say: I, the ideal reader, am the only person that matters. And you’re right. I won’t violate the contract by watering down or distorting my stuff to attract the attention, or garner the praise of, the people who don’t matter. You keep up your end of this bargain by reading carefully and by contributing value to the discussion. (And by buying my books when they come out: we’ll talk about that a bit later.) Quality books and blogs – in short, quality writing – doesn’t come about any other way. It’s a collaboration, a partnership, and a matter of trust. Without you, these words are trees falling in an empty forest.
It sure took you a long enough time to get here. To be fair, you did have to scour the Internet to find me. But that’s the kind of reader you are. And I’m so glad. Like I said, you’re an oddball, and truthfully the odds were against our ever connecting. I’ve written five hundred essays on this one website alone, just to get to this “accidental” moment. It was well worth it. Tomorrow I’ll get up and write, like I did yesterday and the day before that and the day before that. I’ll work hard to live up to my end of the agreement, because you give me your time, and there’s nothing more precious. As the ideal reader, you look forward to keeping this conversation going. As a writer, so do I. So I guess I’ll see you around.