Angela Meyer will be known to Overland readers from Crikey‘s Literary Minded blog. She is a writer herself, and is currently editing Bookseller and Publisher magazine. Here, she contributes a Subscriberthon guest post on the perils and pleasures of matching writers with readers.
I’ve been savouring Richard Yates’ Collected Stories for about the past month now, and quite a few times as I’ve been reading, a friend of mine, Ken, has popped into my head. There is the small fact that in the wonderful story ‘A Really Good Jazz Piano’, about male friendship, knowing one’s place, awkwardness, honour, social impressions (and so much more) the character is called Ken. But there are other things about the collection – working in offices, relationships, perceptions of self – things my friend and I have talked about, which made me exclaim to him vehemently the other day that he must read this book. It’s a book I would recommend to others, anyway, but not in the same way. With Ken I feel sure he will get something (a lot) out of it – more than passing entertainment. That ‘something’ is a kind of connection: an affirmation of a recognisable world (even through intertextuality or projection, say, in non-realist fiction – and in all its shades of light and dark) in which one is not alone in their ordinariness, their hope and their suffering.
I get really excited about matching books to readers. This is one reason I love to review books and interview authors – because it gives potential readers ‘just enough’, hopefully, that the right reader will be led in the right direction (and experience all of the above). I’m still not sure why this gives me such pleasure. When I worked at Dymocks in Coffs Harbour, starting six years ago, it was at first a real challenge to match book to reader, simply because I didn’t know many of the titles in the store. But as I began to read widely, plus read about books through interest and study – it became more of a skill. Some of my favourite moments were helping kids who had just discovered reading. I also loved it when some pretentious old bastard treated me like I wouldn’t know what they were talking about, and I could prove them wrong.
I remember a few epic failures though. I always helped out this harmlessly flirtatious old dude who loved his seafaring and adventure novels. Once I recommended him a book which I had enjoyed myself, and the next ten times he came in he wailed at me ‘I can’t get through it! I just can’t’. I felt so terrible, I’ll never forget it. I made him spend $23 on a book he hated! And he wasted hours of his life trying to read it! (And the poor dear didn’t have much time left – over the four years I worked there become pale and lost half his weight. He also came to rely on a walking stick. He was very ill.) Despite that one failure, he and I became buddies and he did always seek me out for recommendations. I’d like to think I gave him some rip-roaring ‘affirming’ reads over those years.
There’s something of this in the desire to, and the process of, writing fiction. I don’t mean writing with a specific audience in mind, but writing with a communicative truth – the attempt to reveal something felt or learnt, or discover something when writing at the same time in the story the reader might discover it. The process can be unconscious, on the first draft anyway, and the honing of a thought (often surprising even to yourself) comes in redrafting. It is a process of imagination, exploration and uncovering, rendering, and then refining (and refining and refining). The things uncovered are not necessarily the same as what the reader will uncover in the folds of the story. This is a fascinating aspect to me – that a story you’ve written is never completely your own, the way Yates’ stories are mine in a way, and also Ken’s (through my eyes, anyway). Am I also affirming our understanding of each other through this, rather than just he and I separately with the book?
This Christmas I’ll be looking for some ‘perfect matches’ in bookstores and online. Novels, biographies, audio books, cookbooks, science books, history books, political books, short story collections, literary journals (and subscriptions – they do pay off all year long), and a box of children’s books that I send to my cousins every year in Cairns (they’re the most fun to pick out). Will you be looking for books this Christmas? And if someone were to find your ‘perfect match’ this year, what might that be?