Some thoughts on why writers write and readers read
Most novels pivot on the premise that ‘good conquers evil’ and offer the reader affirmation in that belief. After all, isn’t that the foundation of a happy-ending story in which an evil blankety-blank is finally overcome and gets just desserts? And doesn’t that comport with a generalized belief in the after-life where the bad are punished and the good carry-on in bliss? Reading this form of literature, then, is a kind of ritual that affirms and supports an element of faith common to many belief systems.
What about mystery stories? There again, it helps to be a traditional believer where God the clockmaker sets the world to run by laws of nature. Human intelligence observes the patterns, the immense diversity, and looks for ways to organize and re-purpose them. Mystery stories tap into this capacity, this drive to create order out of confusion. Detective stories are basically puzzles, more elaborate than the Sunday paper puzzler page with sudoku and crossword, yet basically mental journeys through a maze of facts to determine who-done-it. Tangled tales demand belief in an ordered universe where logic and cause-and-effect prevail. Resolution to fabricated chaos is reassuring and reaffirming.
But what if a reader thinks life happens randomly and there is no prime mover who keeps celestial bodies in orbit? What if a reader’s life feels like a pinball skittering and rebounding hither and yon? Why would that reader believe that reason and observation, ‘My dear Watson’, can be trusted or expected to solve anything, much less be interesting to ponder as elaborate clues are laboriously strung out over 300 pages. Unless, perhaps, these ‘faithless’ book lovers were drawn to novels and short stories solely for the aesthetics of syntax and word play and reflections on our common experiences—readers as aesthetes looking for art rather than believers looking for affirmation.
All of which asks, for whom are writers writing and why are readers reading their work?