On Reader Impact


For a long time, I was enamored by the idea of “tears for the writer, tears for the reader,” calling to mind what I heard about Gabriel García Márquez getting into bed one night crying. Legend has it that his wife Mercedes, immediately knew what had happened: he had killed off Colonel Aureliano Buendía, a main character in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

This idea also fit well with what a writing teacher once told me, that in order to write anything truly powerful, you had to get to a place where you yourself were vulnerable.

I believed that if I got to the moment of crying myself and wrote through those tears, then of course any diligent reader would be tearful too when they read that passage. I was genuinely bewildered when that wasn’t always the case. To me, “tears for the writer, tears for the reader” was sacrosanct – an invisible, yet powerful governing principle of the writing universe.

Fast forward twenty years to when a poet friend of mine, Lauren Carlson, and I attended a reading. The narrator of the first-person novel was obsessive, and after a while, we, the audience members, started to feel the impact of that intense, claustrophobic mind. When the reading ended, my friend and I had very different reactions. I thought it had been effective fiction, but my friend, who is also a spiritual director, was dismayed. She had a kind of what did the writer just do to us listeners? reaction.


In the years since that reading, I’ve learned more about an idea Lauren’s been working through, discharge vs. disarm. Her conjecture is that writers can directly unload ("discharge") difficult experiences onto the reader or, alternatively, do what she often prefers: "disarm." Here, writers find ways for readers to access a difficult emotion or trauma by rupturing (as opposed to continuing) the cycle of violence.

While the reading we went to together didn’t negatively impact me, I have read other books where, when I got to the end, I wondered what the writer’s intent was in getting me to see what I could never un-see. Were they just re-distributing the horribleness of an experience onto me? To what end? Was it possible for those writers to be causing, continuing that harm? I had always believed in readers being transformed by what they read, that it’s okay to sit in uncomfortable spaces; I had thought of great fiction as getting whatever feeling a character is experiencing into the reader - that was the point! But, now I was seeing my friend’s point, too.

When Lauren described "disarm" as movements that surprise the reader by approaching difficult material obliquely rather than in a directly spelled-out way, I wasn’t sure if the reading experience would be too intellectual and not heartfelt enough. But then I read, Trust Exercise by Susan Choi. While I have never been a theater kid and didn’t share the experiences of what the high school characters had been through, I was deeply moved. After I finished the novel, I read articles and watched a documentary on the subject matter. In other words, the novel made an impact on me. Interestingly, Choi’s characters did not directly download their difficult experiences, nor did Choi. What the book required was the reader take part in a highly engaged way, to actively piece together for ourselves what had happened.

Reader involvement appears to be a major difference between discharge and disarm: how much work does the reader have to do? Are we required to engage our own imagination while reading, rather than just digesting someone else’s experience whole cloth? As writers, are we allowing readers enough room to get there at least partly on their own (which can sometimes result in the more powerful, lasting transformation)?


Perhaps the moves that Susan Choi made in how she structured her novel can be linked to what William Shakespeare did when he left out explanatory elements in his plays. In "Will in the World," Stephen Greenblatt discusses the concept of strategic opacity. He writes about an Italian short story that is thought to be a source for Othello. In the Italian story, the motivation of the Iago- like villain character was clearly stated -- he loved Desdemona himself!

However, in Shakespeare’s Othello, Iago's motivation is left out.

Greenblatt writes that, “Shakespeare found that he could immeasurably deepen the effect of his plays, that he could provoke in the audience and in himself a peculiarly passionate intensity of response, if he took out a key explanatory element, thereby occluding the rationale, motivation, or ethical principle that accounted for the action that was to unfold. The principle was not the making of a riddle to be solved, but the creation of a strategic opacity. This opacity, Shakespeare found, released an enormous energy that had been at least partially blocked or contained by familiar, reassuring explanations.”

He also connects Shakespeare’s use of strategic opacity to what the playwright went through in his own life. When Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, for instance, it was after his son Hamnet’s death. Greenblatt writes, “The excision of motive must have arisen from something more than technical experimentation; coming in the wake of Hamnet’s death, it expressed Shakespeare’s root perception of existence…The opacity was shaped by his experience of the world and his own inner life: his skepticism, his pain, his sense of broken rituals, his refusal of easy consolations.”


You may be surprised to learn that I did start to tear up while writing this blog post. I was suddenly reminded of the aftermath of a close college friend’s murder years ago. I was in charge of writing a dispatch to our college alumni magazine. I wrote that he had died and how much his friends loved him, recalling certain memories to prove my point. When I sent the write-up to my close friends for review before submitting it to the magazine, one of them responded with the comment that maybe it would be more appropriate if I veered slightly away from “anguish.” (I had written in a way that was saturated with that feeling.) I can say in all honesty, that at the time, I wanted the people reading to feel our anguish! Perhaps I felt it proved how much we cared about our friend. I am certain I wanted my own anguish to be part of the permanent record. This was not a natural death, but a crime, a murder, after all.

If I ask myself now, if I was in some way continuing a cycle of violence? Yes, I definitely was. And to what end? I wanted readers to be disturbed and appalled on my friend’s behalf. There is a way in which we push on our wounds.

All this to say, we writers too have our motivations for wanting readers to feel a certain way – and perhaps we can be more mindful about how that impacts our craft and what the impact of our writing is in the world. In my case, a vividly felt personal share was not the same as art – in fact, as Choi, Shakespeare, and countless others show us, art offers us more opportunities.