Writing is an incomplete activity. For the most part, using language has a communicative purpose, and writing doesn’t fully become an act of communication until someone reads it. Of course you can write purely to ‘express yourself,’ but most people wouldn’t see much point in being the sole reader of what you’ve written unless it’s just a shopping list or similarly ephemeral memo to yourself. When a well-considered piece of writing (poem, story, or whatever) circulates publicly, it becomes a medium through which readers can ‘meet’ its author.
That’s one kind of interpersonal encounter, though it’s an indirect one: at most, words on the page simply allow a reader to imagine the individual who produced the words. And because we’re curious creatures, we frequently want more than a mediated encounter-at-a-distance. We’d like to communicate in person, hear the author speak, ask the author questions, exchange remarks face to face.
Direct contact with readers may be an uncomfortable experience for some authors – not surprisingly: in some cases the impulse to write is associated with shyness about oral communication, while in other cases an author takes the principled view that a written work should speak for itself.
At any rate, many readers do want to hear an author talk about his or her books, so only a few rare literary birds (Thomas Pynchon, J.D. Salinger…) can afford to be reclusive. Appearances at literary festivals, promotional talks and readings – these are routine obligations for most writers, who are well aware that their readers (prospective or already engaged) generally expect to have access to conversations with them.
A friend of mine, Brenton Doecke, has recently drawn my attention to an essay by German critic Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller,’ which meditates on historical changes in the way that narratives circulate. Traditionally, Benjamin remarks, someone would share a story with listeners (families, friends, workmates) who in turn often reframed it in terms of their own experience and passed it on to others. This communal chain of storytelling was gradually replaced, he says, by literary narration, tending to create a ‘dependence on the book’ – a dependence that separates author from readers, and readers from one another. It occurs to me that the desire of many readers to meet authors and fellow readers face to face, and discuss books together, may be partly motivated by a wish to restore a social dimension to the telling and interpretation of stories.
At any rate, I enjoy meeting readers in person and talking about my books. I hope this isn’t just a form of self-parading vanity. I’d like to think that, whatever value it may have for the people who come along to these sessions, it has a beneficial effect on my writing by keeping me in touch with the interests and tastes of my readership.
During the year since publication of The Mind’s Own Place, I’ve met and talked with groups of actual or potential readers of my work on more than 30 occasions. These encounters include sessions at literary festivals, recorded media interviews, formal presentations to many different gatherings (various literary and historical societies, library groups, English teacher associations and other professional bodies…), plus less formal discussions at book clubs, writing workshops with school classes, and so on.
Coming up in the weeks ahead are several more meetings of different kinds: a Literary High Tea on a university campus, a talk hosted by the Fellowship of Australian Writers, a regional literary festival, a public conversation as part of the next Perth Heritage celebration… You can find the details here, and I’d be delighted to see any of my readers at any of these forthcoming events.
So although writing is done in solitude, a writer’s life can be intensively social. For me it’s a pleasure to encounter some of my readers in person. But virtual encounters are also important: I welcome the occasional exchanges that take place on this website, especially as some of the comments that come in are from people I’ve never met face to face.