Thursday, July 07, 2005

The Average Reader (updated)

Thanks for the correction, Karen.

I like this story. It has plenty of ambiguity, but not so much that the average reader can't figure out what is going on.

This is clipped from a recent review in Tangent by James Palmer. I have absolutely no aim to start a brawl here, or to incite rage when I ask this question. I ask out of a sincer desire to have other people answer me: Who is the Average Reader?

I wonder because doesn't everyone think of themselves as the average reader? And if so, how can we make assessments of books and stories and literature in general by applying a theory of an average reader's understanding quotient? If you're reading, James, I mean no disrespect. But I don't understand who this average reader is and how it can be used as a factor in assessing the value or success of a story.

Anyone have illuminating ideas?

My previous post is actually much more important and interesting to me. But I couldn't help but ask this question when it occurred to me so urgently.


Blogger David Moles said...

I have the Average Reader here, in a small box. I feed him bits of lettuce, and on special occasions sponge cake.

8:08 AM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...


9:19 AM  
Blogger elad said...

The type of criticism you mention above, Chris, is the same type of bottom-of-the-barrel-scraping phrases that speechwriters come up with on a daily basis. It would be the worst form of death for literature if we try to appeal to the Average Reader. (imho)

But, wait! I think i see the Average Reader over there, with the iPod strings out of his ears, and the hardcover DaVinci Code poking out of his bike-messenger bag. I'm going to go chase after him and find out what he likes to read.

1:47 PM  
Blogger David Moles said...

It's the DaVinci Code as if written by Derrida. Three cheers for postmodernism!

7:02 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...


flashback! flashback!

4:26 AM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2:56 PM  
Blogger Maureen McHugh said...

Sorry, left out n important negative in the last post.

I think that 'the average reader' is not an entirely bankrupt consideration. Although I don't know that I think referring to 'the average reader' in a review is very useful. The line could have just as easily worked without the phrase. But I think I have 'an ideal reader' and 'an average reader' in my head. They are attempts to internalize the idea that someone else is going to read what I'm writing. They're pathetic petmekins of real readers of course, which is one of the reasons I so desperately need the comments of my writer's group.

But my 'ideal reader' loves all the stuff I love and demands ever increasing amounts of me-ness in my prose. My 'average reader' reminds me that not everybody finds the preparation and history of the French dish cassolet completely facsinating and this may be going from cool exposition to just plain boring.

David, my average reader does not subsist on anything so pleasant as lettuce and sponge cake. My average reader is a processed foods, Da Vinci Code, Dancing With The Stars kind of person and gets cranky with frequent access to cable.

I like your average reader much better than mine.

2:58 PM  
Blogger Christopher Barzak said...

Maureen, ever since I wrote this post I have been thinking about a story written by A.S. Byatt called "Racine and the Tableclothe" in which a young teenaged girl of obscenely advanced intelligence (Byatt at that age perhaps?) is writing a paper for her school finals or some such thing that has to do with the Ideal Reader, and how this Ideal Reader affects everything she writes, applauding every brilliant line, casting judgement on those that are unneccessary or flat, laughing at all the right places, wrinkling her brow when a joke doesn't come off just right. That sort of thing. I think what you've described here is your Ideal Reader, which I think is different from an Average Reader. But I know what you mean. I, too, have an internalized reader who alerts me to many of the same things that yours alerts you too. But I wonder sometimes if my internal reader isn't sometimes prepared to read things that someone else's internal reader isn't ready for at all, or wouldn't like at all.

I suppose that's why I'm so interested in these internal readers, who are there for sure. And do affect to some extent how we write.

For me, my internal reader is all the people I've been at various stages of my life, as well as many of the people I've workshopped with, whose voices occasionally rise up out of the depths and say, "That verb is too strong! That color is too unnecessarily noted! This paragraph has only one really essential sentence in it. Cut the rest and save the gold!"

Sometimes I absolutely abhor my internal reader. At other times, I think my internal reader is a writing boy's best friend. It's a love hate relationship.

My average reader is introspective and extroverted at the same time, often in turmoil over big ideas, and wants what he or she's reading to somehow talk with her about these things, she likes to be alone, but he likes to have his friends keep him from being lonely, she's interested in a variety of subjects, from pop culture to historical events, he likes anything from art to sporting events, they're hard to keep up with because they're active and do a lot of things and are thinking their own thoughts about the world also, so when they sit down with me I have to have something to say to them that can satisfy both their need to be alone and contemplative as well as relaxed and entertained. I have to compete for their attention with other things they could be doing, like listening to their new Aimee Mann cd (even though they'll be upset to find it sounds too similar to the last one) or watching a movie from their DVD collection like Amelie or Lost in Translation, or reading the new Karen Joy Fowler novel or their collection of new Kelly Link or Maureen McHugh stories.

I think often I lose their attention hands down. ;-)

9:37 PM  

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