Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Readership or Readerships?

As I've been going about my work today, Alice Notley's notion of "disobeying one's readership" has been knocking about in my head in the background. And I've realized that I don't think of my own readership as in the singular. Rather, I think of myself has having multiple readerships. ("Readership" strikes me as being a narrower, more particular entity than "audience"-- audience, after all, includes in addition to a work's readers both potential readers and readers who aren't particularly interested in the author so much as in the individual work or class of work of the type they see the work as being an instance of.) My sense of the plurality of my readership is likely a symptom of my writing in different genres (fiction, reviews, essays...) and writing in different modes within those genres. I can't think of a single person among my most devoted readers who loves every single thing that I've ever written. (I know for instance that among these, one loves [she claims] everything except "Portrait of the Artist as A Middle-aged Woman" [a story published in Leviathan 2], which she detests.)

Do writers (poets, novelists, short fictionists, essayists, reviewers & so on) who have a singular readership (i.e., fans devoted to all their novels-- or all their poems, or all their essays, or all their short fiction-- because they expect to get a particular sort of reading experience every time they pick up that author's work to read) feel a greater pressure to write in deference to the wishes and desires of their readers than do authors with multiple readerships? I have no intuition about this because I've never imagined my fiction appealing to a broad audience, much less that the set of readers who've loved one novel or story would necessarily enjoy any of the others.

I wonder how many f/sf writers see their readerships as plural? I realize that a consistent fan base is considered necessary and desirable for those who hope to make a living from their writing, but surely that need not be the goal of those of us who have no idea of living off their fiction? I also wonder whether the assumption that a consistent fan base is essential for commercial success is really correct. I can, after all, think of a few examples of commercially successful writers with multiple readerships. (Octavia Butler, for one.) Works may not appeal to all of a writer's readerships, but really, ought they to?

By corollary, I know very well that Aqueduct Press's books appeal to multiple readerships. Large publishers presumably don't expect their books to appeal to a singular readership, but some small presses do, and at a guess I'd say that's probably a smarter strategy than Aqueduct's.

Argh. I'm writing here as though I know what I'm talking about. There are, in fact, people who buy every book we publish (just as there are readers who read all of my work that gets into print), so it's obviously more complicated than opposing the singular to the plural...

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