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What an average reader wants to see in a published work

Phil with Diddie Jackson's book of poetry
Phil Fitzpatrick

PHIL FITZPATRICK

TUMBY BAY - Baka Bina made an interesting request following my recent article about the British author Alexander McCall Smith.

He said, “You have written about the pitfalls of publishing before and I would like to ask if you can re-state what an average reader would like to see in a published work”.

I’m not sure that I’ve ever previously stated such a thing in such a direct way but I’ll give it a try anyway.

The first thing that needs to be stated is that there is probably no such thing as an ‘average reader’. Every reader has their own unique background and expectations when reading a novel, short story or a poem.

It is that background and expectation that determines what they get out of a work of literature.

What we do as writers is provide a kind of guide or blueprint within which the imaginations of all those diverse readers can be let free to make whatever they can out of what we write.

One reader reading a work of fiction will probably come away with a specific interpretation that is different to all the other readers reading that same work.

All we can do as writers is try to aim for a particular type of reader and hope we hit the mark.

To do this we need to exercise a kind of judgement based on our own experiences as a reader.

The more we have read ourselves the easier will be this process.

We may wish, for instance, to capture as large an audience as we can and sell as many of our books as possible.

If we do this we are probably best to aim at the lowest possible reader denominator. This can be a cynical approach and often means that what we write will be a low form of literature, the sort of book that gets labelled as a best seller or airport novel.

Alternatively we can aim at a much smaller readership with specific backgrounds and taste. If we do that we almost certainly will not sell so many books, although occasionally, as in the case of Alexander McCall Smith, we might create a spark that grows into a fire.

My own preference is to go for the smaller readership. That’s why I base my books in Papua New Guinea or write about unpopular subjects like Aboriginal Australia.

That said, and given the limited opportunities for publication in Papua New Guinea, I think it behoves any Papua New Guinean writer to write about their own country.

This is a kind of moral imperative, not a commercial or literary one. I’ll leave that up to Papua New Guinean writers to decide.

So let’s say we’ve decided to go that way. The next question is how we write. Do we adopt a simple and straight forward style or do we incorporate a degree of complexity in the mix that will force the reader to do a little extra bit of work?

In making that decision we have to bear in mind that there is an inherent danger in deciding on the latter course.

Using complex notions stitched together with flowery descriptions and big words that everyone has to look up in the dictionary may not appeal to many readers. And, when all is said and done, it is generally possible to say the same thing in a much simpler way. That, in itself, is a skill that a good writer needs to cultivate.

Another thing that we have to bear in mind is that the imagination of modern readers is quite different to readers of the past. This is due to the pervasive influence of media.

Whereas in the past a writer may have had to spend a great deal of time explaining a particular idea, place or activity in great detail nowadays, thanks to television, film and other media, the impression we want to convey will immediately leap into the reader’s mind with a word or two rather than a long explanation.

We don’t need to be Charles Dickens or Mark Twain anymore.

In the Papua New Guinean context think of words like ‘bigman’ or ‘haus krai’ or ‘sanguma’ or ‘buai’. If we are writing for an overseas readership we might have to explain those terms in detail but if we are writing for a Papua New Guinean readership we don’t have to bother, they will know exactly what we mean.

This brings us to the point of familiarity. Most readers want to read about things with which they are familiar. They may be day to day happenings or about the perceptions they have acquired through various influences, like the media. This is why both the mundane and the fantastical can be attractive to readers.

You also must be authentic. You need to create the impression that you know what you are talking about. That means doing your research well. I don’t know how many times I’ve been halfway through a book and come across an obvious error that destroys the rest of the experience.

I recall reading a book by a popular Australian author who was writing about World War II. In her book she had her characters driving around in LandRovers, which weren’t manufactured until 1948. That simple mistake queered the rest of my reading experience.

So where does all this bring us?

Well, I think what it means is that the average reader wants to be firstly entertained and then, possibly, made to think a little bit. Not too much, just a little bit.

They don’t want to be dictated to or patronised in any way but they are willing to learn. If you have a message to get across you should make it simple and hide it skilfully. Preaching to readers is one of the biggest mistakes a new writer can make.

The best advice I can give to a new writer is to write what pleases you rather than what you think might please other people. Be your own writer, not just a hack writer.

All pretty simple really.

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