In David Lodge’s Thinks… (New York: Viking, 2001) 62, the novelist character Helen Reed muses on the ideal reader: “… ‘the reader’ – who is not Mr Cleverdick the reviewer, or Ms Sycophant the publicist, or your fond mother, or your jealous rival, but some kind of ideal reader, shrewd, intelligent, demanding but fair, whose persona you try to adopt as you read and re-read your own work in the process of composition.”
A fine definition of the ideal reader, but notice the position of the reviewer, publicist, mother, rival, and ideal. They’re all receivers, and they’re all pictured as judging the work and the author. And the fictional author Helen puts herself in their position: “…whose persona you try to adopt as you read and re-read your own work in the process of composition.”
As a writing coach, I find that writers who think about readers as judges fail to write up to their potential. For starters, they’re thinking about judgment when they’re trying to write, rather than about what they’re trying to say. Then the immediate reader, the ultimate judge, their Internal Critic, starts tearing their confidence to shreds.
So who is the ideal reader? We might take a cue from Holden Caulfield: “What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” Here the reader wants to become the author’s friend, in a lasting relationship. Many successful writers create just this sort of friendship through their works, and enhance it through social media. By reading them, we join their club.
My ideal reader is more like a dance partner. I lead, and she follows, and we talk as we twirl. I’m actually not a very good dancer, but she’s right with me anyway, forgiving and always ready for my next move.
[Who’s your ideal reader?]