By Charles Matthews

Thursday, April 29, 2010

5. "Negotiating With the Dead," by Margaret Atwood, pp. 123-151

"5. Communion: Nobody to Nobody, The eternal triangle: the writer, the reader, and the book as go-between."
Her advice to her writing students: "Respect the page. It's all you've got."

Advice to the reader:
Pay no attention to the facsimiles of the writer that appear on talkshows, in newspaper interviews, and the like -- they ought not to have anything to do with what goes on between you, the reader, and the page you are reading, where an invisible hand has previously left some marks for you to decipher.
As a beginning writer, "My failure was my failure to imagine a reader."

We assume too easily that a text exists to act as a communication between the writer and the reader. But doesn't it also act as a disguise, even a shield -- a protection? 

The nobody-writer must throw off the cloak of invisibility and put on the cloak of visibility. As Marilyn Monroe is rumored to have said, "If you're nobody you can't be somebody unless you're somebody else." ... But once both book and Dear Reader become multiplied by thousands, the book becomes a publishing statistic, and Nobody can be quantified, and thus becomes a market, and turns into the great plural Them, and Them is another thing altogether.
Cyril Connolly "breaks success down into social success: not too bad, because it can provide material; professional success: the regard of one's fellow artists, on the whole a good thing; and popular success, a grave danger." 

Keats praised negative capability, and unless a writer has something of this quality, she will write characters that are mere mouthpieces for her own views. But if she has too much negative capability, doesn't she risk being turned into melting wax by the strength of her audience's desires and fears, interacting with her own? 
"This brings me to my last question: where is the writer when the reader is reading? There are two answers to that. First, the writer is nowhere.... [T]he second answer to the question ... is, 'Right here.'"

She tells the story of her first reader; a Brownie troop leader called Brown Owl, whom she met again many years later, after she had put Brown Owl into her novel Cat's Eye. Brown Owl presented her with the stories she had written fifty years earlier.
So that is who the writer writes for: for the reader. For the reader who is not Them but You. For the Dear Reader. For the ideal reader, who exists on a continuum somewhere between Brown Owl and God. And this ideal reader may prove to be anyone at all -- any one at all -- because the act of reading is just as singular -- always -- as the act of writing.

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