It’s a question I don’t often consider, except when stressing over some deadline or trying to fit a story line into a specific genre. For the most part an idea fishhooks me and hides in my brain, gathering layers over time like a pearl in an oyster until some trigger catapults it out through my fingers and onto paper. It’s a passion for making, just like crafts – gardening, textile arts, baking bread, making jams, things some might think more useful than the scribbling of words on pages.
So, if I write for myself, it matters not if no one ever sees it or reads it. True or false?
I find a sense of history-making here – a writing of the world as one person sees it, a recording if you like and that accounts for the variety of fiction sprouting from a few basic plots.
And that idea of recording, of writing history posits the presence of a reader, either now or in the future. Is that just an altruistic justification of an endless compulsion to write?
In my own experience as a reader history becomes multi-dimensional and rich through the perspectives of contemporary and present day writers. And writers of today flay the issues of the times and present analyses of geographies unknown to me far more effectively than any overexposed news coverage.
So in some ways I am always writing in hope of a reader but is this desire to put my work before a public just an ego trip? Is my desire more for recognition, approval, or even just to feel that others know I exist? What makes me think I have something valuable to say or even the capacity to entertain and lighten the lives of readers?
All these ideas are probably mixed up in my writing motivation but the ratification of writing is increasingly being pushed by the writing media and writing course designers towards consideration of ‘the market’. Which shelf would your book sit on in a bookshop? Where do you see yourself in five years’ time? How do you propose to assist in the marketing of your book? Do you tweet, blog, facebook? and so on and so on.
Now it seems, genre must dictate the shape of our storytelling. Fiction needs to have a predictable structure that can be neatly packaged and sold just like a bunch of bananas or any other commodity. By conforming to the book industry’s demands, the writer will acquire a loyal readership ready to buy the books the author is known for. That will jingle the pockets of all concerned in creating ‘the product.’ So will everyone live happily ever after?
It’s perhaps less of a problem for writers than for readers who can become stuck in the groove of a particular genre and miss out on exciting stuff being written in other genres. Major competitions like the Booker may go some way to getting people to read differently. Writers, however, even those writing to formulaic genres, can’t avoid inserting themselves and the issues that concern them unconsciously into their writing. Perhaps this underlying subtext within a given genre style is more effective than consciously riding a hobby horse about a specific issue which can take on a hectoring note if not carefully handled.
Even in these days of commodification a book remains a magical thing. In it the writer can say or discuss views rarely aired fully in conversation and can delve into issues in depth, hopefully to a wider audience than his/her immediate circle. Writers also unintentionally reveal themselves in a way they would never do in public or in face-to-face interaction. Readers gain vicarious knowledge of other lives, other experiences, both familiar and alien. They are able to learn of the dilemmas of lives quite unlike their own and also to examine their feelings about their own experiences in reading stories of similar lives to their own. Reading multiple works of the same writer can give an interesting oeuvre on that writer’s life, thoughts and motivation.
As writers we must expose ourselves to readers. We cannot know where our books will go, who will read them and what changes, personal and/or social may result from reading them. Storytelling, like other forms of art, seems to be part of the human condition, a haven for reflection and consideration. As storytellers we write not just for ourselves but for the world, now and in the future.