A Bad Writer Blames His Readers

‘I am beginning to be sorry that I ever undertook to write this book. Not that it bores me; I have nothing else to do; indeed, it is a welcome distraction from eternity. But the book is tedious, it smells of the tomb, it has a rigor mortis about it; a serious fault, and yet a relatively small one, for the great defect of this book is you, reader. You want to live fast, to get to the end, and the book ambles along slowly; you like straight, solid narrative and a smooth style, but this book and my style are like a pair of drunks…’ (Macado de Assis)

Another quotation from the excellent Brazilian novelist Macado de Assis, courtesy of Braz Cubas, the rather wonderful narrator of his 1880 novel Epitaph of a Small Winner.

Though delivered with the tongue lodged firmly in the cheek, this attack on readers may turn out to have a legion of earnest followers within the literary community. Some, of course, would take this line of thinking as an excuse for bad writing. There is, yet, plenty of purchase in the idea that a culture of substandard literature has just as much to do with poor readers as it does with poor writers. This is, I think, especially pertinent in our current age, in which the great art of reading – of really reading – seems to be falling by the wayside, leaving our writers to play all kinds of tricks to bring their readers back (tricks which lead, invariably, to a significant drop in the quality of their prose).

Perhaps writers are fools to follow their reader’s whims – this is undoubtedly true; though I am as reluctant as ever to release readers from their share of the blame. In this I reveal the teaching I received from Johannes Speyer, who instilled in me a deep suspicion of reading as practised in modern times. Speyer, I fancy, would have taken Braz Cubas’s criticism quite seriously. To him writers were almost always in the right. If something seemed wrong, the problem lay not in the original text but in the reader’s interpretation of the text. The correct response? To read it again and again and again: as long as it took, in fact, for the ‘error’ to fade away.

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