The Reader as Enemy

Shirley Jackson was a prolific writer whose best-known novel was The Haunting of Hill House, which was also made into a popular motion picture.  The Library of America published a collection of her best stories, sketches and novels a few years ago and now, fifty years after her death, another collection of her prose, Let Me Tell You, has been issued.

Much of her work was first published in magazines like McCall’s and Collier’s, and she freely admitted that a lot of it was just good enough to put bread on the table.  She wrote essays, too, and one of her frequent complaints was the short attention span of readers, this when the distractions of fifty years ago are as nothing to those of today.  Her view of the typical reader was not sanguine:  “Far and away the greatest menace to the writer–any writer, beginning or otherwise–is the reader . . . The reader is, in fact, the writer’s only unrelenting, genuine enemy.  He has everything on his side; all he has to do, after all, is shut his eyes, and any work of fiction becomes meaningless.”

Ms. Jackson went so far as to outline methods by which a writer might keep a reader interested.  Writing by formula, of course, is not the best way to create good fiction, and she reserved it for the commercial pieces by which she mostly earned her living.  Nevertheless, her lament resounds all these years later.  The best-seller lists are dominated by formulaic fiction.  Pace, the speed at which an author reveals his story, is all-important.  A writer who tries for something more–thoughtful, descriptive, analytical prose–is seldom successful or well-compensated.  The end result is a downward spiral in literary style and creativity, and a further cheapening of our “culture.”  Ms. Jackson would undoubtedly be dismayed.

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