Potlatch 7

Writers and Readers:
How Common is the Ground?

Time:Saturday, 2:30 p.m.
Ringleader:Debbie Notkin
Cohorts: Loren MacGregor, Elise Matthesen, Phoebe Reeves

This panel was suggested by Ruth Lafler.

To write for publication, a writer must make some assumptions about who is likely to read the book: what they might have read, what their body of knowledge is, what they want, and more. These assumptions inform the writing, and affect the reading, yet they are rarely examined. How do writers make these assumptions? How does the actual reading public fit their "profile"? Is there a gap between the perceived audience and the real audience and, if so, how can it be bridged?

Reported by Kate Schaefer

When a writer sits down to write, what audience does she have in mind? How does that affect the work?

Phoebe Reeves: fantasy writer, teaches at U of SF; author of two textbooks. Elise Matthesen: poet, journalist, fanwriter. Loren MacGregor: novelist, techwriter, fanwriter.

E.M. Never believed writers thought about audience, because she writes as if one to one – until becoming journalist, when audience became extremely important.

LM: Tech writers must think of audiences, also. On Internet, he thinks he's writing clearly, and then gets feedback which suggests that he's not. At one client, he learned 300 translations & permutations of one word in different languages & cultures. He carries this back when he returns to fiction.

PR: In magic realism she thinks only about whether the reader will understand, not whether the reader will like it. Uses a small but eclectic group of first readers. For textbooks, the buyers are teachers, but the users/readers are the students, and it isn't always possible to get past the first group to the second.

Debbie N, editor: Says to authors, don't talk down. Authors say back that other editors always say to simplify.

EM: Talking down is a question in journalism & spoken word performance. S-F gave her a background in introducing concepts in context so she doesn't have to talk down. GLBT (Gay Lesbian, Bi, Transgender) journalism gives a window into overlapping but not identical worlds, but it can be a minefield. If she offends, bars will pull ads & jobs may be lost.

LM: Stories w/content vs. no content, murky or clear – stories can be so clear that it's obvious there is no story there. Can be so filled with S-F tropes that it's not worth wading through to get to the story. LM points out the value of criticism that he disagrees with.

PR does care what readers think – stories are about —(life?) & death, linear existence – how do you hook on to people? How do you make something clear without making it simple-minded?

Question, Sonja: – sometimes she reads a book twice because the perspective the first time through turns out to be wildly different from the author's intent – company of characters in process makes the first reading work, knowledge makes the second reading work very differently.

Question, Jacob: certain kinds of books show the author gets bored or loses focus 2/3 through. Very disappointing.

LM: Some early Delany books are like that for him, though he forgives Delany because the journey is so fun.

EM: Simple/complex. At textile museum, exhibits had to be 7 +/- 2 objects. Under 5 too few, over 9 too many.

Question, Joanne: Pet peeve, a writer who has done research but has not inhabited or imagined the world. Then the writer dumps the research as a lump.

EM: Different duties when writing different stuff. Fiction works primarily with memory & emotion. The writer’s job is to recreate the shadowbox: the ghost of warmth of past hands.

Question, Jeanne Gomoll: What's different for reader included/excluded? Some people feel excluded from Sarah Canary. Jeanne feels included. A book she respects but always feels excluded from is White Queen – so alien. Third book talked about act of creation. (Finished more). Her discussion group hated it for all the same reasons she liked it.

PR: What is the quality of a book?

DN: I'm Lafferty-deaf. Too many brilliant people like him for him not to be good, but I miss his point.

EM: Sometimes there are neurochemical reasons for not understanding/ understanding books. Linear narrative is not her first language, but she can see how it might be useful.

DN: Linear is not simple.

LM: Has a brilliant coworker who chooses the right word. But readers use fuzzy logic, so the right word can be misunderstood because of (the lack of?) surrounding words that are wrong but close.

Question, John: in much of S-F, the writer doesn't have a clear picture – how much can a writer prepare?

PR: Used cyberpunk story, B. Sterling's Spider Rose in class. The class stuck on all the technical details rather than reading the emotional content of story. PR then had to question whether the story was good on its own or if it requires too much context to understand.

Question, (?)": Doesn't think linearly. Books only thing (s)he reads front to back. Likes a Lem book because of the experience of not knowing whether it occurs in a dream or not.

DN: Rock musicians hate KS Robinson's Memory of Whiteness, classical musicians like it.

EM: Liking/not liking certain books is not a moral issue – people get different things from books - (Oatmeal shortage joke: "It would be terrible if everyone liked the same thing – think of the oatmeal shortage.")

LM: (Switches nameplates with EM): Movie Diva, book Diva. – Diva's translator was the same as (Umberto) Eco's translator for Name of the Rose. A different translator was used for other Delacorta books. LM can't tell if Delacorta is actually a good writer, but he's a different writer, differently translated.

DN: We all know what kind of stuff everybody likes, and no one wants to write it.

Question, (?): If reincarnation is true, then if you have no resonance with a period then it's harder to write, but with resonance, it's easier.

LM: Worked at making male/female proportion 50/50: more women were named in his book. What happened is that a reader asked him if the women had taken over in his book.

EM: If [a group] is 30% female, most people will perceive the majority of the group is women – same applies to people of color.

Question, Dave Howell: His composition teacher was scornful of pop music – he wondered why, since its structure is immediately [arresting]. But that's all there is. More complex music requires more work & repays more work, as does, say, Gene Wolfe.

DN: [We call that] the Highest Common Denominator.

EM: A writer trying to write something new will look odd to the reader.

Question, Howard: The degree of difficulty of explanation is inversely proportional to the degree of the audience's familiarity with the subject.

LM: Two workshopping questions: What is the writer trying to do? Does the writer succeed?

Question, Janet: The concept of comfort [in] inhabiting a world – Janet likes stories she's not necessarily comfortable in, though not horror.

PR: The film Devil's Advocate: non-genre friends didn't like it – people like to be uncomfortable in a certain way, and the forms of how you like to be uncomfortable are important.

Question, Lenny B: Horror succeeds when it synthetically evokes experiences the reader recognizes from real life.

Question, (?): In his company, everybody read Neuromancer because the boss read it. But they didn't have the tools to comprehend it.

Conclusion

PR: Audience profiles, race, gender, etc. A critic said it's not possible to break down an audience that way – because how many straight people are actually straight? But you must start somewhere, so picture a reader, then throw the picture away.

DN: One of my agendas was to talk about writing for an hour and a half without talking about marketability & we did it.


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