The Importance of Readers (to Writers)

I have a standard answer when interviewers ask me about literary prizes—this question invariably comes up, whether in Japan or abroad. “The most important thing,” I tell them, “is good readers. Nothing means as much as the people who dip into their pockets to buy my books—not prizes, or medals, or critical praise.” I repeat this answer over and over ad nauseam, yet it doesn’t seem to sink in. Most often it’s completely ignored.

When I stop to think about it, though, interviewers may simply find my answer boring. There may be something about it that sounds packaged for public consumption. I sometimes get that feeling, too. It certainly isn’t the kind of comment that sparks a journalist’s interest. Nevertheless, since the answer reflects what I see as the honest truth, I can’t really change it, however boring it may be. That’s why I end up saying the same thing time and again. Readers have no ulterior motives when they shell out twenty or thirty dollars for one of my books. “Let’s check this out” is (probably) what they’re thinking, pure and simple. Or they may be full of anticipation. I am eternally grateful to such readers. Compared to them…no, let’s just drop the comparisons.

At the risk of stating the obvious, it is literary works that last, not literary prizes. I doubt many can tell you who won the Akutagawa Prize two years ago, or the Nobel Prize winner three years back. Can you? Truly great works that have stood the test of time, on the other hand, are lodged in our memory forever. Was Ernest Hemingway a Nobel Prize winner? (He was.) How about Jorge Luis Borges? (Was he? Who gives a damn?) A literary prize can turn the spotlight on a particular work, but it can’t breathe life into it. It’s that simple.

- Haruki Murakami, Novelist as a Vocation

I can see why some people might find this banal, but it stopped and moved me when I read it. Maybe this is one of those points that is more obvious to people who have never published (or attempted to publish) something for others. They are not as close to the danger.

One of the preconditions for writing is to become more involved with one’s subject than the audience. To write anything, you almost have to get in your head a little bit; concentration requires losing track of others. This is true for any writing that is original and difficult–especially literary writing. When a writer publishes, it is always a little surprising to finish and discover that one’s writing has been read: that there was another phase to this game, that it has an effect on someone.

Sometimes I think that the main reason graduate schools in the humanities (Masters and Ph.D.) remain as big as they are–still– is because they create a pool of “good readers” for the faculty. Given that graduate students are more numerous than professors, and the size of the average non-specialist audience for scholarship is zero, graduate students must be the single largest set of readers for academic writing.

Today the ratio of writers to readers may be closer to 1:1 than ever. I want to say–not without a healthy doubt for my own answer–that perhaps more people have discovered the pleasure of writing, for its own sake, than at any point ever. But this also makes readers more scarce than ever. There is simply more writing, chasing an only marginally expanded pool of readers. What makes Murakami’s tribute to the reader worth ruminating on is that it speaks to a condition of all writing– even the professionals at the very top of the recognition hierarchy.

To write is to risk not being read, to risk looking self-absorbed because you have taken care to craft an object that no one will ever use. This is why prizes for writing can look like an attempt to perform an audience into existence (aren’t prizes awarded on public stages? with an audience?). So often when a prize is awarded, the media coverage notes that the prize is “prestigious.” But prestige does not imply readers–only readers do.

Tags writing craft reader interaction effect