If you read through some of my previous posts, you'll see that Blake Kimzey, author of Families Among Us, the book that won the Black River chapbook contest, was nice enough to respond on this blog, even though I wasn't 100% happy with his feedback on one of my short stories. He even sent me one of his short stories, one that he says he really is invested in, but can't seem to get a single journal to bite on. I gave him my thoughts on the story, not because I think I know how to write a story that will get published, but more as an example of his eventual typical reader--someone who reads literary journals. In the feedback I sent him, I quoted Kurt Vonnegut: "Readers...are selfish and have no compulsion to be decent about anything."
I've been thinking about this idea a lot in the last week. Readers have lives, lives in which they not only have literally millions of choices about what to read, but millions of choices of things to do other than reading. As a writer, you are always one split-second of unappealing writing away from losing your reader forever. And a reader has no more reason to feel bad about dumping your story than he does about deciding to take a nap instead of watching Fried Green Tomatoes for the eighty-seventh time on TNT.
I can think of two examples in the last month where I myself was guilty of being a dirtbag of a reader. One was the short story "Yachts" from the Spring/Summer edition of Glimmertrain. I almost didn't read it at all, because just from the title, I thought it would be about some rich characters in Kennebunkport or something. I set the magazine down, and didn't read it again for two days. If the story hadn't made it clear in the first page that it was actually about a poor person from New York who gets talked into a yacht trip in the Mediterranean with his wealthier friend, I don't think I'd have ever read it. A second example was a story from the Baltimore Review's 2014 compendium of all its work. "Patience" by Janice Greenwood began with these words: "Shortly after Maria had been released from the hospital, the snails began to destroy the garden." I thought there would be a lot in the story about gardening, which I consider to be boring. I put the story down and read something else. I haven't picked it back up yet. Totally unfair.
When I was at the Baltimore Book Fair a few weeks ago, I attended a workshop led by Baltimore Review's editors on "making the ordinary extraordinary." Seth Sawyers asserted that "you can talk about anything that interests you, and if you really are passionate about it, a reader will follow you." I'm not sure he was right. I'm kind of a jerk. I assume others are, too. If you try to sell me on a story about a lady who knits sweaters, I doubt I'll stay with you. I might, depending on how clever you are in writing it, but you've definitely turned up the difficulty on trying to get me to stay with you.
The upshot of all of this is that maybe it's good when you get feedback from someone and it includes some ideas that maybe reflect that the reader didn't all the way "get it." Because your real readers certainly aren't going to be MORE attentive than that. I still think I am right to have been annoyed by the lazy readership I got in grad school workshops, because, well, I was paying a lot of money to get a better readership. At the very least, I deserved more than half thought-out criticisms by other beginning writers who were struggling to keep up with classes, their own writing, and part-time jobs.
I really think the "literary service" was a nice middle ground. I can't afford to use it on every story, but really, I'd recommend it over a writing program for a lot of writers looking to get their careers started. I certainly got a closer reading than I ever got in grad school, and I got more useful feedback. But it wasn't TOO useful. That is, it wasn't so sympathetic to me that I got an unrealistic idea of how sympathetically my asshole readers in the real world will read it.
So does the basic selfishness of readers mean that you must always choose high-octane story lines that will prevent them from getting bored? I don't think so. If your pool of potential readers is a random sampling of the general public, then I reckon that for every person like me who loves Schwarzenegger films and hates gardening, you'll get one who loves to make their own socks and grow herbs. But you do have to keep your readers in mind as you write. This is definitely not something you do during an early draft, but as you get near your completed story, you need to kick the tires to make sure you don't have anything in your story that will make someone put it down for good. And getting feedback from a reader, even a distracted reader, can be useful for this. Your friend, family member or paid editor is still giving it more care than the person out in the world will.