BEST READER, WORST ENEMY
by Claire Rudy Foster
There are two kinds of important reader: the one who hates you, and the one who understands you.
When I write, I come to the page knowing that someone will probably hate what I produce. In fact, I count on this. As I work, I read each sentence as though I am my own worst enemy. Zadie Smith says to “try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.” That means that every adorable turn of phrase—everything that I thought was so smart—gets bullied out of the final copy.
You can have one adverb. One. Not three.
Oh good, another weird metaphor.
Exclamation points, seriously? Are you in fifth grade?
Imagine the most popular girl in your high school sneering over your story, elbowing her best friend, hissing get a load of this shit. That’s what I hear when I’m editing. My inner critic is every mean girl who ever made fun of my writing. I owe her: it’s criticism, not supportive encouragement, that makes me want to make my writing bulletproof.
I can hear their voices now. Maybe yours is one among them.
But, wait. Second: The people who approve of you too much are not doing you any favors. If my hate is unpalatable, the endless validation you get should turn your stomach. Why? Because it dulls your edge. Overexposure is a huge risk for creative people. Share the same piece, or work in the same style for too long, and you get baked into it. You sell yourself on Patreon, become known as a brand. Do this, and you may cease to be genuine, or genuinely interesting. You might keep drawing the same stories you were working on three years ago. What’s new? You’ve found something that works, yes, but how long until you dry that subject out and go in circles for a year?
Court your fans, and I’ll wonder: why aren’t you working harder? Your critic is not generous. She will never give you the benefit of the doubt: she won’t assume your naïveté is deliberate. It is my experience that an awareness of this criticism purifies my writing. I hold every sentence up to the light, checking its lace. I read myself forensically and in doing so I am doing my story a favor because I am asking more of my work instead of congratulating myself at the end of each sentence.
This is why I hold tight to Stephen King’s advice about audiences. There is no audience in the traditional sense, he says. You’re not on a stage, although social media and readings and conferences and merchandise tables may sometimes convince you otherwise. We’re told to write for people who like us, who get us, and that’s maybe like 5% good advice.
It’s a waste of time to try to win over people who simply aren’t interested, or who are belligerent or stupid. Some people will never get you, and it’s not your job to convert them. Instead, focus on one reader and make the most of the friction between you and her. It is critical to making your writing better. When you write, don’t do it for an amphitheater of fans, not for a demographic, but for one perfect reader who loves you and gets you and wishes to be pleased by your story.
It can be a complex relationship, sure. My perfect reader isn’t always the same person, and it isn’t necessarily someone I like. At the moment, for example, she is a girl I’ve never met. She’s making all the mistakes I made at twenty-seven and thinks that being liked is the same as being good. Her brand is all about being adorable and she gets off on playing vulnerable in front of her many fans, confusing performative honesty with the real thing. If she met me, she’d probably think I’m crazy. That doesn’t matter to me. She represents both my younger self and the person I’m glad not to be anymore. In my core I believe that she is the person who needs to read this essay, before she turns into self-promoting machine that smiles when you drop a quarter into it
Beware the kind of love you think you want. That’s what I want to tell her. You are a writer, and your job is to make good stories. You aren’t a marketer. Don’t write because you want to grow your following or build your brand. Doing these things will weaken your writing because they make you less of a writer. Keep your distance and don’t worry about making friends.
Seek the highs and lows in your audience; the person who puts your book down mid-chapter, grumblingly gets up, and goes to make a sandwich is much more interesting than the one who leafs through it quickly, gets all the jokes, and then tosses his copy aside. Don’t write for your fans: if they’re your fans, they’ll like you or hate you regardless of what you’re doing. Knowing the quirks of your perfect reader is more useful—it’s what differentiates canned applause from your friend’s satisfying “ha!” What is worth more to you? Pleasing a focus group, or making your best reader laugh?
The two buoys of “best reader” and “worst enemy” keep my fiction on course. (My perfect reader likes nautical metaphors.) My writing should fend off the criticism of my enemy as well as possible. It should be impervious to mockery, difficult to predict, and satisfying even to someone who doesn’t like it. Ultimate fulfillment is hearing “Well, I usually dislike this kind of thing, but it was really well done.” Excellence of craft will make you invincible.
The best reader’s function in my writing is to make me immune to the heartache that inevitably comes with this work. Having one perfect reader in mind gives me the freedom to ignore criticism from anyone else. At the end of the day, I don’t care if an army of cash-waving fanboys doesn’t like my short story. What I do care is if my perfect reader caught her breath in that first paragraph; if she hesitated over the image I wrote out for her. I care if she went back and reread that particular scene or line of dialog. I care if she was amused or not. The rest of the world can go fuck themselves.
The challenge of writing is to balance the major and miniscule. It’s about denying a sea of bullshit opinions in order to cling to the one single reader who matters at all to you. I suggest that the next time you sit down to work, you listen carefully for those voices. Hear them, now. That critic would tear you apart in a thousand ways. How will you defend yourself?
And, more importantly, who will love what’s left of your writing when your critic is finished dismantling it? Find that reader, and give her everything that is good in you to give.
Claire Rudy Foster is the author of I’ve Never Done This Before. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, xoJane, The Establishment, and many other excellent journals. Several of her stories have been nominated for independent writing awards, including the Pushcart Prize and the WFSA Small Press Award. She lives in Portland, Oregon.
Image credit: Xava du on Flickr