Reader work is a new concept for me. Reading, especially with Companion Cat purring beside me, has always been my purest pleasure.
Fact, fiction, annual financial statements, cornflake packets, I read them all. And I revelled in the otherwhere of the printed word, quite apart from whatever I learned from the text in question.
During lockdown, I have been reading even more than I usually do. Some old friends, for the dark times. Right Ho, Jeeves never lets me down. Nor does Sylvester. Or Wyrd Sisters, Fire and Hemlock, Persuasion…
But also new voices. Recommendations, serendipitous discoveries, long postponed titles from TBR pile, curiosities. All were interesting, many fitted my mood or preoccupations of the time. A few were utterly fabulous and I binge read everything else the author had written.
But what surprised me was that reading a new book tired me. Especially the ones that I really loved. Nearly as much as writing the damn stuff.
Reader Work – Co-Creation?
Think about it. Reading a new book is nearly as tiring as writing a new book?
Shome mishtake surely? as Private Eye’s Ed would say. I was sitting by the fire with a cup of tea and a cat floating away into another reality.
Yet sometimes I really did feel as if I’d dragged some half-formed thing out of my subconscious and given it a local habitation and a name.
And, of course, in one way I was. I was taking the words into my heart as well as my head and allowing my imagination to work on the material that the writer gave me. And very soon, I cared about those characters and their predicament, as if they were friends, family. In some cases, indeed, as if they were me.
Reader Work , Audio Drama and Neil Gaiman
And then, by chance, I fell over a fascinating podcast. Neil Gaiman talks about adapting his Sandman as a long form audio drama. Published by Audible, it will be out by now.
He is also very interesting on his whole relationship with audio drama, incidentally. When he went to live in the US he would come back to the UK to stock up on copies of radio plays like the BBC’s adaptation of The Hobbit.
He makes a fascinating point about the similarity between novels and audio drama, especially long form audio drama. Watching a film or television drama, is “completely passive” he holds.
Whereas, he says, audio drama “is at the intersection” between prose and film. OK, there are no pictures, but the auditory stimulus alone is not enough to give the listener everything. He cannot be passive. He still has to work. As he would with prose.
In Gaiman’s memorable words, radio drama “gets straight into your head.” Returning to Sandman as audience, he finds at least one episode “emotionally gruelling”.
So, if I understand him correctly, the audio drama is intimate in the same way as the written word. I agree with him. Both the audio drama and the written story take place in your head.
Try What He Would Have Wanted, a delightful, funny and painful drama from Viv Groskop broadcast this week on BBC Radio 4, for a terrific experience of that.
Reader Work: Collaborator?
Prose, he says “is raw code”. The writer and reader “are collaborating to build a world.” And this, I think, is where I part company with him.
I can understand why he would think like that, of course. He is quintessentially a world-builder. The Internet gives his fans the perfect route to tell him how they respond to his world. Walk around in it, indeed.
Author and reader may even enter into conversation. But that is several steps further on in time and place.
The writer creates the world, Also the characters, the issues, the actions. The reader contributes his belief.
But this is not collaboration. By the time the reader receives those messages, the author has lost all control.
The reader is more like someone picking up a message in a bottle, than a collaborator.
Reader Work: Handling the Story Baton
Maybe a better – if surreal – image would be the reader as the next runner in a multidimensional relay race. The story is the baton. For it to travel, the reader has to engage with it.
Actually, the reader’s contribution is something we constantly come back to on Libertà. Often quoting Ursula Le Guin:
The writer cannot do it alone. The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it alive: a live thing, a story.
And being a living thing, the story may take the reader into places I, the author, never imagined.
As Libertà’s good friend Elizabeth Hawksley noted in a recent blog, that can be very disconcerting, if the reader shares it with you. Something catches their imagination – or maybe reminds them of something – and off they fly in a direction you never considered.
Never considered? Maybe you positively disagree. There’s no point crying “But I didn’t mean that.” The story is already powering its way onward. You have to let your children go!
Reader Work: Fan Fiction
My own theory is that readers have always created fan fiction, in their heads if nothing else. Sometimes they just bound forward from the world and time you originally created. But sometimes they will re-write.
As a huge fan of Georgette Heyer and of A Civil Contract, I will confess that I fantasisied a whole sequel in which a post-marital love story actually happened. Not for anyone else to read, you understand. For me. Because I wanted Adam to commit to Jenny for her qualities, not for his emotional convenience.
OK, I gave him a rival. He jolly well needed a good shake-up. “You make me comfortable”. Indeed. Harrumph.
And, finally, I want to recommend a novel, which clearly started as Fan Fiction but has added so much, so many issues and brought such fantastic verve, energy and emotional excitement to the old plots that it feels like a completely new bottle thrown into a new sea.
I speak of The Angel of the Crows by Kathleen Addison. I don’t know whether it was inspired by Conan Doyle or Cumberbatch, but the author has done them both proud. If you think there are no possible surprises to be found in those old tales, think again.
I loved it.
Well done, that Reader! And thank you.
Fascinating post, Sophie. I love audio drama, but unless I’m doing something else, I tend to fall asleep listening to audio books. And while I never actually went so far as to build a sequel to A Civil Contract, I definitely wanted to give Adam a good shaking. And I’m off to find The Angel of the Crows!
Thank you, Liz. You’re a woman after my own heart!
I’m not a fan of audio books, they disturb my vision of the author’s world. I never listen to my own, that would really make me cringe. I’ve never been that fond of audio drama, either, although I’ve written it. But I’ve made up fan fiction in my head, too – I just wouldn’t like to see anyone else’s!
This is so interesting, Sophie. I agree the reader has to work, and not only emotionally. You do, after all, throw up images in your mind immediately and watch the characters moving around like a film in your own head. That takes a lot of energy. If a story is good and well written, then it’s easy to keep those images going. If you are tired or the writing is jerky, you get pulled out and your attention goes off creating the images. So it’s pretty much the same game as writing – for me anyway.
I’m a great believer in reader participation. Every reader might read the same words, but they have a different take on the story than another reader. For one thing, their picture of the h/h (and everyone else) won’t correspond to the one others have. Hence the arguments about whether such and such an actor is right for a role adapted from a book!
And yes, if I’ve loved a story, I am very busy afterwards inventing the happily ever after in my own head. Unless they are all dead, of course, which happened in a book I recently read. It was, I had to agree, the only possible ending, but it was a jolt at the time. Shakespeare did that a lot.
I thought of a rider to my comments – there are two “continuation” novels I’m very fond of. Jill Paton Walsh’s continuation of Sayers’ unfinished novel Thrones, Dominations. I, in fact, read all sequels, too. The other surprised me a lot; it was Stella Duffy’s continuation of the start of a Ngaio Marsh novel, Money in the Morgue. Ngaio Marsh is my favourite detective writer, and my own inspiration, and I was very dubious. But I loved it. You really couldn’t see the join. Duffy hadn’t upset my vision.