My friend Marty recently emailed to say how much he enjoyed my novel The Odd Plight of Adonis Licht. I hear from readers only occasionally. Then again, I don’t email authors. My purchase of their books tells them what they most want to know. Still, I need to acknowledge an author whose short story got to me.
Nathan Englander’s “The Reader” in the acclaimed anthology What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank touched me deeply. The story will appeal to any serious reader. Writers will experience a near-visceral response.
“The Reader” concerns both a writer, referred to as Author, and a devoted fan, called by Englander—you can see this coming—Reader. Author has reached relatively old age. He’s written several very successful novels—about one per decade. (No way I could take that long, but that’s another story.) Now, he’s driving cross-country on a book tour for his latest (unnamed) novel. Alas, his reputation no longer serves him. At one bookstore after another, he finds not small audiences but no audience at all. His career isn’t even running on fumes. But he encounters one exception.
Reader, also an old man, follows Author to every stop on the tour. While Author finds his fall from the heights both heartbreaking and debilitating, Reader will have none of it. He insists that Author deliver his promised reading at every store. Moreover, Reader insists that so long as he creates an audience of one, Author must give a great performance. Reader cares that much.
Why did I respond so much to this story? Fiction proves valuable because it arouses empathy. Every writer can see in Author either the fragility of success or the failure to achieve it. For most writers, the latter applies. I’m not sure it’s the worse position to be in.
Why do writers keep writing when readers aren’t reading? Maybe it’s an odd addiction. More likely, it’s a compulsion to share our observations of, and response to, the world. Think of it as therapy masquerading as art.
I don’t know how many Americans write fiction. I do know that among what may be millions of writers, only a small percentage ever get published. A smaller percentage get published regularly. Even fewer achieve enough success to give up their day jobs.
Ultimately, even the greatest writers fall by the wayside. For Author, this constitutes a living death. Of course, I’ve never come close to Author’s accomplishments. Still, everyone likes a little applause. So, when even one reader, like Marty, tells you that your work matters, you experience the emotional equivalent of being brought back to life by a defibrillator.
I relish the compliments I’ve received. A while back, I read from my story “Beautiful!” at the launch party for San Jose State University’s new edition of its annual REED Magazine. The audience offered enthusiastic applause, and the previous year’s editor asked me to sign his copy. What a rush!
It should be noted that Author’s experience translates to any profession or pursuit. Success rouses our spirits. Failure—no matter how many successes, large or small, precede it—can crush them. Check out Englander’s “The Reader.” See how you respond to Author’s pain. I felt it in spades.
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