Who’s there?

Yes, it’s the first line of Hamlet, but that’s not what I’m writing about. At least not directly.

In my last post, I promised to bring to the table other writers who’ve written about fruitful relationships with imaginary readers.

My own touchstone comes from an essay by Mark Kramer.

Literary journalists write in “intimate voice,” informal, frank, human, and ironic.
I suggest to my Boston University writing workshop that members find their voices by imagining they’re telling fairly close friends whose wit they respect about an incident they’d observed and taken seriously, linked to fields they’d studied.
What emerges is a sociable, humorously self-aware, but authoritative voice–I hear it at dinner parties when people tell anecdotes.

Kramer goes on to describe the writerly voice evoked by these imaginary readers in this imaginary setting.

The powers of the candid, intimate voice are many, and they bother people who insist on idealized versions of reality. Formality of language protects pieties, faiths, taboos, appearances, official truths. The intimate voice sidesteps such prohibitions.

That’s my writing voice, the dinner-party voice. That’s the voice I’ve lost, and need to find again.

Working writers sometimes mention they have imaginary friends who help them write. It’s awkward for adults to admit that they have imaginary friends, so the practice may be more common than we know.

John Steinbeck usually answered queries about writing with a helpless shrug, saying he had no idea how it happened. But in a personal letter to a friend, he advised writers to

Forget your generalized audience. … In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

Literary critics are on to us, though. A gaggle of modern thinkers who study writers, and writing, have glimpsed our invisible assistants.

  • Wolfgang Iser, one of the first to notice the phenomenon, called it an Implied Reader.
  • Umberto Eco uses the term Model Reader to mean, according to Bruno Osimo, a translation theorist, “the prototype of reader the narrative strategy addresses, a sort of imaginary reader in the mind of an author.” Eco is a novelist as well as a critic, so besides projecting how writers in general work, he is presumably describing his own writing practice.

An increasing number of theorists posit insubstantial readers, but they are less curious about how the writer does it, and more interested in how actual readers experience works of literature. Stanley Fish imagines an Informed Reader, Jonathan Culler a Competent Reader, Michael Riffaterre an Average Reader.

Interesting, but not the writer’s problem, other than hoping our actual readers get the point.