The other day I read an interesting blog post by a literary agent. Although originally produced in December 2015, it had been shared on March 20th in The Writing Reader’s ‘Carnival of Creativity‘.
In the post, originally published on Jane Friedman’s blog, Rebecca Faith Heyman contends that too many writers have no idea who their audience is. When asked, they are apt to respond with a sentence containing the phrase ‘every reader’. Every reader, she insisted, does not exist. He or she is a myth. I beg to differ – although I would substitute ‘general reader’ for ‘every reader’.
“In reality every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what,without this book, he would perhaps never have perceived in himself.”
I will concede that ‘audience’ is a concept with which I struggle. If I have a mental picture of the person who will read and enjoy my work it is of someone not unlike myself and many of my friends. People with wide tastes in reading. Thrillers, murder mysteries, biographies and family sagas are consumed alongside books by well known writers who have been nominated for, or won, literary prizes. This is what I mean by the ‘general reader’.
It seems to me that to suggest that, because someone enjoys romantic novels or ‘chick lit’, one cannot also read science fiction, horror, or dark tales involving zombies, is insulting to readers. One might as well suggest that because someone likes jazz, that person cannot also enjoy listening to classical music or opera. It is to pigeonhole, or ghetoise, readers into exclusive categories for whom writing must be especially tailored to suit their presumed narrow interests.
The reader I crave for my writing is the same person that reads Ian McEwan or Ali Smith. The person who would be as happily seen holding a book by Stephen King as one by Roddy Doyle. He, or she, is enthralled by Lionel Shriver, captivated by Colm Toibin and taken to new worlds by Ursula K. Le Guin. I believe that every reader is possessed of such broad tastes – or could be, if publishers were not so eager to herd them into cages with labels like animals in a zoo.
The problem for self-published writers like me is not not knowing our audience. It is our audience not knowing we exist.
3 thoughts on “Is ‘The General Reader’ a Mythical Creature?”
Wow. Really great post, Frank. This is an angle not many people take. I admire it — and I agree with it. 🙂
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Frank, I share your vision of the ‘general reader.’ I love books. I love reading both fiction and non-fiction. I’ve read all types of books, with a few exceptions like horror. While my stories are set in the Caribbean, I write for general readers who seek to experience life in other parts of the world and to explore themes, like racism, that affect our relationships.
Thank you both for your comments. How successful are your efforts to reach ‘general readers’? I keep seeing articles insisting that our marketing and advertising should be ‘targeted’ at a specific category of reader – even down to the keywords and categories we use in describing our books on Amazon. How can you target a ‘general reader’?