Should writers care about readers?
Rudyard Kipling, Old Fashioned Storyteller (image courtesy, Wikimedia)
This starts with a conversation I had in graduate school. I was trying to decide which author I would focus on for my master’s thesis. I knew it wouldn’t be a poet (I adore poetry and have a large number of poets whose work I admire and love to read and discuss, but I’m a prose writer myself and I felt I’d be more simpatico working with someone who did what I do), and I knew I wanted to choose someone who hadn’t been, in the words of my adviser, “done to death.” This was the early 1980′s and my school’s English department was actively discouraging students from writing any more theses on Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, Salinger, Vonnegut, Brautigan, Kerouac, Ginsberg or any Beats – and you couldn’t even whisper that you wanted to write about a Romantic. We Boomers had worn out professors’ patience writing – and writing – and writing about these same authors.
James Joyce, Modernist literature’s poster boy (image courtesy, Wikimedia)
Contrarian that I am and have ever been, I decided to try to reconsider the reputation of Rudyard Kipling. I liked much of his work; some, like Just So Stories, Jungle Book, Captains Courageous, and Kim had enriched my childhood; others, like his novel The Light that Failed and stories like “Without Benefit of Clergy” I thought deserved more attention. Irving Howe, a highly respected scholar, had just brought out a new Kipling reader. Besides, how could a Nobel prize winner not deserve renewed attention? I also knew that writing about an author often (and not completely incorrectly) branded a racist, imperialist, jingoist super patriot would fly in the face of convention. But Kipling was a great storyteller – and I missed that. I was tired of sitting in classes hearing professors drone on about how it took classes full of grad students and their professor months (was it years?) to “decode” the”Benjy” section of The Sound and the Fury. Or that Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse was a triumph of stream-of-consciousness narration that represented a great advance in literature. Or that Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake was somehow superb because it was unreadable.
After a long talk with my adviser I gave up on Kipling. I could see that “old fashioned” storytelling, even done beautifully, thoughtfully, meaningfully wouldn’t be enough to satisfy literary critics and scholars. What I needed was to find someone else – anyone else – besides Kipling. And no, I couldn’t write about Jack London or Robert Louis Stevenson or Arthur Conan Doyle or H.G. Wells or Daphne DuMaurier either. I needed to choose a serious artist writer – not someone who wrote stories that children could read and understand. Continue reading