All authors began as readers. We were the toddlers begging our parents for one more bedtime story; we were the children nose-deep in a book while our friends played. Our devotion to writing was born of a passion for books.
Looking back, I can so easily trace the seeds of my writing career in an early love of reading. In my childhood home there were books everywhere; they were treasures we collected and prized. They were education, comfort, escapism, sheer joy. When you feel so much for books, it is a logical development that you will take an interest in their creation – and then, one dazzling day, the idea strikes: someday, I could create one of my own. An author is born.
Given that reading came first, it is of little surprise that reading remains of crucial importance to the author when the time finally comes to chase the dream and write.
First of all, the author writes what he or she wants to read. As Toni Morrison said, ‘If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ The author writes books for his or her own bookshelf, to be read over and over again.
But what author is satisfied with being the sole reader of the work? Surely to be an author is to seek to be read.
A recent article in the New York Times explored the question: ‘Does a True Artist Care What His Audience Thinks?’ Writer Adam Kirsch opines that some level of sharing is imbued in the definition of artist, ‘whether the artist seeks publicity or not’. He writes:
To write a poem or paint a picture is to translate inner experience into outward form and presence; it is to objectify sensation, and the definition of an object is that it can be passed from hand to hand, its shape fixed for everyone. To want to be an artist without creating such an object is a contradiction in terms. And once the object is created, it wants to be seen, just as a flower or a wave wants to be seen. Art is a form of communication, and communication cannot be totally autonomous, just as there can be no such thing as a private language.
Author and professor Ayana Mathis talks about the True Artist, ‘undisturbed by any considerations external to his work, cloistered in his ecstasy of creativity’, and debunks this figure as arrogant and fantastical and – most importantly – inconsequential. Because it is the art that matters, not the artist; the book, not the author. As William Faulkner put it:
But what is important is ‘Hamlet’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ not who wrote them, but that somebody did. The artist is of no importance. Only what he creates is important.
The reading of books is important: to spark debate, controversy, interest and intellectual and spiritual growth. Had Harper Lee written the last page of To Kill a Mockingbird and then thrown the entire manuscript in the fire, the world would be darker for her action. And what of her imminent and much-anticipated release, Go Set a Watchman? That manuscript has been locked away, unread, for so many years. And yet long ago, when the author wrote this book, it was with the hope it would be published. No doubt she is anxious about its reception, but relieved that the book will move beyond her imagination; it will truly exist, because it will be read.
Note that I say ‘she is anxious now about its reception’. Authors write to be read, but we don’t write to be judged – that is an element of the sharing process we must accept, but it is not one we inherently need. What authors must do is stand strong and write what is in their hearts to write: fearlessly, openly. The knowledge that our words will be read cannot be allowed to affect what those words are – we can’t bow to pressure, internal or external, to write in a certain way or about certain things. As Virginia Woolf said: ‘Literature is strewn with the wreckage of men who have minded beyond reason the opinions of others.’
What relief is there, then, for the author who must write to be read but accept the vulnerability that being read demands? Reading, of course! When being read becomes difficult, I pick up a book and I read. And I discover, all over again, why I am an author.