What writers owe readers


I’m going to start with some of things that writers don’t owe readers, as I see it. One is the same story over and over again. If you love a writer, set her free. Let her grow. Another thing writers don’t owe readers is a story that explains everything and leaves nothing implied or unsaid: “He loved her. She loved him. They loved each other.” Only poor readers complain that they had to figure some things out for themselves. One of the joys of reading is participating in creating meaning.

Okay, so what do writers owe readers?

In another post I asserted that a writer’s job is to “to bring readers joy.”

I want to say a little more here about this idea. After many years as a reader I look back now on the books that were the most moving and meaningful to me, and the word that keeps coming to me to describe these unforgettable reading experiences is joy.

I don’t necessarily mean stories that make me laugh, though I love stories like that. I don’t mean a nice, neat, happy ending, though I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this kind of ending, as long as the story earns it. And I’m not talking about a story that wraps up with a safe, feel-good life lesson. Though, again, some wonderful books do. It’s rare, and usually the book was good despite the life lesson.

I’m talking about what I like to call readerly joy, which for me may have sorrow, confusion, suffering and unquenchable desire within it. Part of this joy, as I said above, is participating in a world that the writer has enticed you into by not telling you everything. Readerly joy is a rapture that comes with having entered a world made of words and finding that it has taken you over and won’t let you go until you come out the other side. You’ve traveled with the characters through whatever life has done or given to them in the course of the story.

Readerly joy is language used with precision, wit, and heart, and a love of words for their own sake. As a kid I loved Dr Seuss not because he was teaching me to read but because I loved reading his silly sing-song sentences over and over again.

Readerly joy is a sentence that you can almost take in your hand and heft as if it has weight and substance, admiring its beautifully shaped contours and polish. A sentence that may tell of some grief or terror but does so in a way that resonates through you and deepens your knowledge of grief or terror.

Readerly joy is a narrative that goes somewhere you didn’t expect.

It’s surprise. Wonder. Shock. Sometimes this joy is also pain because the book has forced open your eyes to an ugly truth about the world. Whether it’s wonder or pain, readerly joy comes from a book whose influence doesn’t end once you put it down. The way you see your own world has been changed.

This is readerly joy.

Why do I think writers owe this to readers? Because readers give us their time and imagination. Because our writing is incomplete without a reader to lift the words off the page and shine light through them. Because writers are readers, too, and they became writers because some other writer brought them this joy.

To write so as to bring joy to readers is to attempt to repay this gift.





  1. Jennifer Keane Mackinnon says

    Several years ago I was privileged to interview Dr. Joyce Harder, a pediatric cardiologist, for a small story in a community newsletter. I was, and remain, in awe of this woman, who is loved by her patients and even more by their parents because she has compassion and sensitivity to match the depths and breadth of her knowledge and expertise. We spoke for quite a while, and when the interview was over, she asked me what it was that I had studied, and what I liked to do. I told her I’d studied creative writing and that I really wanted to write fiction. I told her I felt a bit sheepish about admitting this to a woman who did so much to help people with serious health problems; writing stories seemed kind of frivolous compared to what she did. Her response was very quick: “Not at all!” she said, “When I get home from the hospital the first thing I do is pick up a book and read for an hour. It helps me put the day behind me.” I was surprised to hear that, and very grateful to her for saying it. It was a first step to realizing that writers provide an essential service to the community. I’d experienced the joy and relief of escaping the troubles and problems of my own world in the pages of fictional worlds many times, of course, but I hadn’t quite shaken the idea that writing was something one did for oneself, that it was pure ego to want to pursue it. I’m glad to know better now. I enjoyed your essay very much, especially the point you make of showing respect for the time and attention of readers by giving them one’s best. Thank you for taking the time to write and share your ideas–I’m sure I’m not the only one who appreciates and finds them very helpful.

    • That’s an inspiring story about Dr Harder, Jennifer. I think writers, like anyone else, can get caught up in thinking “this is all about me.” I can’t be sure what other readers are looking for or appreciate in a book, but I always remind myself that I’m a reader, too, so I should write the kind of book that I look for as a reader. If others like it, too, great. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Best wishes, Tom

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