Do you read me? Over.

Or, why reading and writing novels is not a form of communication

“If you want to communicate, use the telephone.” – advice to poets from Richard Hugo, in The Triggering Town.


We get involved in very different writing and reading situations in life; the one I’m most interested in is the writing and reading of art works, especially fiction. It’s helpful to contrast that with some other writing-reading situations in order to see what an unusual position we’re in when we write fiction. One way to see a difference that matters, for me, is to look for confirmation of communication: how, or whether, we receive confirmation as readers that we have understood what the writer meant, or receive confirmation as writers that we have been understood. A few examples will help to point up the peculiarity of a writer’s (un)relationship to that omnipotent, unidentified stranger, “the reader.”

Suppose I’m the director of a college’s writing program, which indeed I was for close to twenty years, at Simmons and elsewhere. If I go to work and write a memo, as Director of Writing, about the college’s writing requirement, it exists and is read in an institutional context inhabited by everyone intended to receive it. At the college, we have a shared culture with shared meanings of words, and those shared meanings can be confirmed when necessary by those who have been around a long time and have institutional memory. There are also certain people who specialize, as part of their job, in exact understanding of the shared meanings, such as administrative assistants and middle-level managers (e.g., assistant deans). There are two different layers of communication: an official channel – the memo itself – and a back channel: the recipient of the memo, if confused, can call me on the phone. All this is supposed to create a shared understanding of the college’s policy, and though nothing’s perfect, it usually does.

In my role as teacher, when I write a comment on a student’s paper, there is an official channel – the comment I hand her – and there is a back channel: she can come to my office and ask me what I mean. It’s my job to see to it that by the time she leaves, we’re both convinced that we have communicated. Of course I don’t claim that I always succeed, but what I’m up to in a writing course could be described as an effort to get to a point of confirming that I understand what the student has written and she understands what I have written back to her about it. In the service of that goal, a powerful context of shared meanings, values, terms of art, ground rules has been established by what I’ve said to the class as a whole, the class discussions we’ve had, the other writing we’ve read together.

In legalistic situations, such as warning labels, contracts, divorce agreements, and the like, there is a one-sided power relationship in favor of the writer (a lawyer). The lawyer writes in sovereignty, the reader reads in subjection. The writer’s intention is all-powerful: the burden of understanding it is all on the reader, and if the reader doesn’t understand, it’s his fault and his problem. If I tell you in the fine print of a credit card contract, in complex language, that I (the issuing bank) have the right to sell your credit record and purchasing history to anyone I please, then if you later object to my doing so, you don’t have a leg to stand on because enough communication is thought to have occurred whether you understood the fine print or not. That’s the way the game is played, and you don’t have a choice about it. You were warned even if you never realized that you were warned; you consented even if you didn’t know what you were consenting to. Certainly you were never asked what you understood the agreement to mean, in order to confirm that writer and reader understood the same thing.

The situation of a reader picking up a novel is just the opposite of the legalistic one; the power relationship is reversed. Rather than reading in subjection to the text’s intentions, the reader is free to read in sovereignty, by her own lights. When you read a novel, it is what you say it is, not what the author says it is or what some expert says it is. Eminent Critic may give the book a rave in the Times, but if you don’t enjoy it yourself, obviously Eminent Critic was wrong.

In significant contrast to most other writing, the reader of a work of fiction, a poem, or a play can’t presume that the story’s context will be the everyday reality we all share: you can’t look at your own daily experience and assume it will transfer to what you’re reading. The world that the text refers to is whatever the work, and the tradition of similar works, establishes for itself. The potential variation in worlds is enormous. Consider a Poe story, a police procedural, a science-fiction novel like Green Mars (hypothetical world rigorously defined by natural science as we know it), a novel that accepts spiritualism as reality (Mama Day). Think of the books or stories in which the reality is a little “off” in comparison to what we’re used to, but in each case in a way idiosyncratic to that author. One Hundred Years of Solitude. “The Metamorphosis.” “Kew Gardens.” Birdy. Beloved. “The Garden of the Forking Paths,” and so on, and so on. The writer is not only free to, but obliged to create a world; and yet the reader still has the last word, because nothing is so until the reader feels that the words on the page make it so.

A back channel exists between writer and readers only when the writer gives a public reading and takes questions, or makes remarks intended to shed light on the written text. Given that people generally take advantage of such opportunities to quiz writers about how they work and what their work is really trying to say, I think it’s fair to conclude that some readers wish there were more of a back channel – they would like to confirm that they did understand the work as the writer intended. But only a tiny fraction of those who read a published book ever encounter the author in this informal way.

Even when a back channel exists, it’s questionable how much confirmation it can deliver to the writer or reader. A colleague of mine used to teach my novel Family Resemblances in a course on realistic young adult fiction, so I had ten or twelve opportunities to talk about the book with a roomful of graduate students. The net result of those conversations, for me, was that the variety of interpretations and responses reflected the variety of readers, and I’m convinced it always will. Readers read their own story, their loves and hates, their own needs and losses in the story the writer has written. What the reader brings to the text is at least as determining of meaning as the text itself; in practice, it’s impossible to override that major fact. To say that my own reading of the book is one of many is not false humility; it’s the reality of the situation.

When there is little or no back channel, a slippery context not presumed to be consensual, and no such thing as a correct expert reading, then there is no confirmation, either for reader or writer, that communication has taken place. I am arguing that this is a crucial fact for the writer of fiction who imagines that he or she is working in relation to a public. When I, the writer, cannot confirm that whatever I intend has been understood by my reader, and when you, the reader, cannot confirm, and may have no desire to confirm, that your understanding of my book corresponds to my intention, then it follows, counter-intuitive as it may seem, that however valuable an activity it may be, writing and reading a novel is not an act of communication.

What it is more like is the way ecosystems circulate nutrients. The systems thinker Philip F. Henshaw likens the functioning of ecosystems to a peculiar kind of “bucket brigade.” The standard image of a bucket brigade is a linear progression in which buckets – all filled with the same thing, water – get passed from hand to hand, down the line to a predetermined goal: putting out a fire. Henshaw proposes that we picture how natural systems function by instead imagining a free-for-all in which people abandon buckets wherever they please, filled with whatever they happened to put in them, and pick up other buckets (presumably because they like what happens to be in them) wherever they happen to find them. As Henshaw says, “You’d think this wouldn’t work… and you’d be right, it wouldn’t work to execute any plan. Nature, fortunately, isn’t following a ‘plan’, and that’s why everything gets to follow its own [plan], and interactions are so resilient and flexible.” Animals put down buckets of carbon dioxide every time they breathe out, and plants pick them up; plants put down buckets of oxygen, and animals pick them up. What we do with the oxygen isn’t the plants’ concern, and what plants do with the CO2 is likewise up to them, not us. The analogy isn’t perfect, since of course a work of art is much more purposefully shaped for a specific use than a molecule of CO2 is. But I think the image is much closer to what really happens to a piece of writing, out in the world, than is the notion that the writer can make it mean to a reader what the writer intends.


You can download this as a Word document here: Do you read me