Today I'm thinking about the ever-vague concept of the reader. Who they are, what they want, and how much should a writer even care about them.
It's been on my mind a lot lately, ever since reading the novel Tumbling After by Paul Witcover. The book does passable balancing act of telling two parallel fantasy stories at the same time. The first and primary story focuses on Jack and Jilly, a set of young twins who may or may not possess near-godlike powers. Kestrel, and half-man/half-bird mutant, stars in the second story, which features a highly detailed, complex fantasy world. Although very different, Witcover develops relationships in theme and character between the two threads.
What I'm questioning is the way Witcover introduces us to the second story. Set in the late 1970's, Jack and Jilly are obsessed with a Dungeons and Dragons style game called Mutes and Norms. Kestrel's story is told by way of this of this game. The game is ruled by a series of complicated rules and rolls of 20 and 100 sided dice, and the rules echo within Kestrel's fantasy world to the point that they make some of their own choices by way of a dice roll.
I enjoyed this angle, particularly since I was a little bit of a D&D geek as a little kid. I didn't play it that often, but I loved reading the books of different monsters, and the odd little plots that people developed. Problem being, I'm over 30 and Witcover's book flows like a Young Adult/Teen book. The rules and details of it all wore a little on me at times, but the teens of today play games on the computer, not on tables with sets of dice and long, complicated rule sheets. I just can't see them wading through the longer sections that explain the rules of Mutes and Norms, much less responding with the same level of understanding that I did.
And so the big question for today: who is Witcover writing to? And does it even matter?
When I'm writing here, I obviously have some idea of an audience in mind. Aside from the people I know who look here, I keep things relatively directed towards books and writing in general. But when I'm writing fiction I don't really think about an audience until I get to the place of selling the piece. Then I try to think about where it fits, and possibly how to reshape things for the particular publication.
An argument could be made that thinking about audience stifles, perhaps even destroys, all chance at creativity and originality (enter Tom Clancy). But if no one reads it, if that book just sits coated in dust on that lonely shelf in the back corner of the library (you know the one I mean) does the book matter?
I'm not sure.
Part of my conflict comes from my liking the book. And I'm not the only one. It's getting some raves in a variety of spots. But if, despite glowing reviews, the intended audience doesn't read it, it's likely it will be forgotten. While I hope this doesn't happen to Mr. Witcover, I unfortunately think it's pretty likely.