Of Writers and Readers
by Nathan Brown
In the published conversation that is, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, writer David Foster Wallace urged the differences between good writing and so much of the other communications and information that compete for our attentions. He argues that one of the first tasks of a book or other writing is, “to teach a reader how to read.”
“You teach the reader that he’s way smarter than he thought he was,” he continued. “I think one of the insidious lessons about TV is the meta-lesson that you’re dumb. This is all that you can do. This is easy, and you’re the sort of person who really just wants to sit in a chair and have it easy. When in fact there are parts of us, in a way, that are a lot more ambitious than that…I think what we need is seriously engaged art, that can teach again that we’re smart.”
In a world of information, it isn’t just television that screams that we’re dumb. The sheer mass of information confounds and confuses us, giving us fact after fact, opinion after opinion with nothing to piece them together or filter out the worthless and the pointless. In our hurried and flustered breathlessness — as a friend recently commented — good, careful, thoughtful, engaging, creative and provocative writing is like taking a deep breath and feeling our thoughts and spirits begin to settle.
That is why we need good writers and thinkers, who will remind us and urge that we are smarter than we have been led to believe we are. We need people who can wrestle with an idea, a belief, an issue and from their labour call us to new ways of seeing, hearing and believing. This doesn’t happen by chance and is a discipline that grows only with practice, so we also need to make space, give responses and allow for less than the best from those of us who are committed to working on the task of writing and learning to write.
Too often, as a church, we have invested our resources in production and distribution, assuming either that we have all the content we need or that, ‘if we build it, content will come.’ So we have many slick — or less-than-slick — products and productions that seem to say little. And we work at creating a ‘brand,’ forgetting that something to say will create far greater credibility than anything we can contrive. We need to invest much more in ideas and the people who bother to try to explore and explain them — and we need to make publication space for writers to work and play with.
But writers also need good readers, people who will accept the challenge to be smarter than they are tempted and told to be. Most writers and would-be writers can accept the insult of not being paid for their work far easier than they can quell their outrage at not being read. Yes, writers need to deserve their readers, whether by effort or results, but they also need readers who will be smart, ambitious, generous and willing to risk a few minutes of their time and thinking.
Such readers should never be taken for granted by a writer but should be relied upon to read, reflect, respond and participate in the almost illusive but necessary task of communication. By his or her writing, the writer invites the reader into his or her thoughts and experiences and hopes to share something more than just themselves. By their reading, readers demand the best efforts of the writer but will often have to forgive their honest shortcomings.
In his survey of current Adventist writing, published in, Swimming Against the Current, Chris Blake is both honest and hopeful. “Many Adventist articles and books today constitute a bland soup,” he suggests. “Readers are held hostage to shrill doomsayers or merchants of safe passage, while writers often appear self-congratulatory and predictable, introducing characters and themes, as Dorothy Parker once wrote, that run ‘the gamut of emotions from A to B.’”
Blake calls for new backbone and new eyes in the task of writing. “Adventist writing is not doomed to a future of the bland leading the bland. In the end, we find realistic hope whenever someone with backbone discerns and points out the truth, says it aloud, mentions the elephant in the room.”
So that’s bolder writers and smarter readers, but what of editors? Perhaps a university study guide puts it best: “Over time, editors tend to acquire a vast, scattered general knowledge and an abiding humility about what they don’t know.”