Readers Are as Important as Writers

When I’m shocked and appalled by what people say, I let it sink in. Then later I come back to try to understand what they meant, why I reacted as I did, and how it fits into some larger picture. I suppose that comes from teaching.

The concept I’ve been thinking about is the idea that those websites like have an assumption that the success of writing comes from the writer. Because of my training as a preacher, I know that no matter how skillful the speaker or writer may be, at least half of the quality comes from the side of the reader or listener. I’ve come to propose that the receiver should be seen as the founders saw Congress — that is, divided between an “elite” who learned to accept ideas critically, to think abstractly, to follow with understanding, on one side, but on the other side to take seriously the “common person” who reads in an unsophisticated way, just skipping whenever their understanding goes blank or their sensibilities are offended. Oddly, in Congress it is the ordinary person’s side, the Dems, that are concerned about the vulnerable and the elite who can’t grasp facts.

(I try not to think of an “elite” Senate that has gone corrupt.)

Thus, my cousins — we’re Scots — loved “Outlander” about the history of that country, and simply skipped the sadism, violence, and gay stuff. Readers have loved the whole series. Arrogantly, I considered some elements just reader bait for less sensitive people and I ignored the story. Thus my friend I mentioned earlier innocently enjoyed James Willard Schultz’ wild tales without worrying about whether they were a bit exaggerated. But purists were offended. Nevertheless, Schultz’ popularity has been sustained for a long time.

It’s easy to know how to attract writers to new venues, esp. the ones who participate in the pop loop about celebrities and scientifically wobbly speculations about psych stuff. Just offer them fame and fortune. It’s almost publishing automatically mechanized or rather digitized. (It was Gutenberg with his printing press who was mechanizing.)

Some people cannot make sense of print. They are not simply illiterate in the sense of not being taught to read. Whatever it is in the brain that can associate sounds of spoken words with little marks on paper (or the equivalent) is simply missing. Maybe they weren’t taught but maybe one of several steps is missing physiologically. The code for “brain construction” had a glitch. We tend to think everyone has the same mind unless there’s a marked deficit.

But sometimes it’s a matter of experience, like the famous reflection on how different is the world of the bat. I’ve been slow to realize that defined and habitual versions of certain knowledges make it impossible for me to understand their language: banking, insurance, the stock market, and other monetary worlds, for example. They use specialized jargon that they think everyone understands, but I don’t, so I end up trying to get some young person on the coast by telephone to explain terms and rules. They’re usually patient, but a bit baffled that I don’t understand.

This is what one runs into when trying to explain writing about the original peoples of the continent and their descendants. It’s a different world. If the virtual construct of a novel is not what some readers expect, they will put the book down. But they aren’t conscious that they imagined some expectation that wasn’t fulfilled. It just seems bad writing. The actual Native Americans who grew up on the rez may begin to read, find the ideas ridiculous, and quit.

Their problem can be something like those who learn to read and write Blackfeet, a naturally oral language, but discover there is very little in print using that language. In fact, there isn’t an alphabet for English that can accurately convey a language with different consonants or even vowel sounds. Readers need to read what make sense to them but if they don’t write, where will it come from? It’s a circular problem. But it’s not about white people if one wants reservation people who can write.

I would argue that “race” is not physical so much as a matter of culture and that culture can be radically different from the mainstream, or partly secret because of stigmatizing and tabooing different things and wanting to avoid trouble. If the trouble is an oral culture, what about going to video “writing”? Sometimes cultural “race” — understood as culture rather than skin color — is an attempt to preserve the past, maybe through writing, or maybe to define the present. Shared culture is more meaningful in the lives of people than their genes or provenance, which are the basis of “blood quantum” as an entitlement, though the original idea of protecting a completely pre-existing set of people was at the bottom of the idea.

The reservation system was straightforwardly the provision of commodities to people who were in danger of death, extinction. The government mainstream wanted to kill them, or at least hoped they would dwindle out of existence. It was a hellish basis for a new culture, which was inconceivable then. The People were vulnerable in part because of their means of living being destroyed but also because they couldn’t read print and all the negotiations were recorded in print, signed with X’s and often neglected afterward.

Today a great big Rule of Law chicken has come to roost on the government, because the legal requirements have been ignored. These are now given close attention by wily old chiefs who can not only read, but also may have been to law school. And they may not be that old.

For the ordinary person who only watches TV, the romance of the displaced and seeking person still holds attention and keeps value in those books. For many readers it doesn’t matter who spins the more recent yarn or whether it is all “true” so long as it fits their expectations. But ever since AIM warriors appeared, it has been possible to break through old standards if the writer is passionate enough, sexy enough or forbidden enough. No need for high Anglo literary quality, though fine writing has always been able to accommodate both Venus and Dionysos, Western post-Roman elements.

Autochthonous (earth-based) ideas from Eurasia are more like the American indigenous frame of mind. One shared aspect is the love of laughter, especially related to the mischief or stupidity of an archetypal character, whether Naapi, Simple Simon or Trump. Laughter, one of the most potent oral language elements, can also carry the uninitiated into reading print. Maybe graphic comics stand in between, political cartoons most of all.

This phenomenon of writer/speaker interacting with reader/listener creates something invisible, which can be called “virtual,” something abstract but existing. It begins in the mother/infant charmed circle and persists in the idea of the “liminal,” an extraordinary time/place marked by some kind of psychological “limen” or threshold, either deliberate or accidental. Even non-readers can experience the phenomenon, maybe not consciously, but just by feeling the difference through music or ceremony. It is deeply human.

Not every bit of writing or speaking can be liminal, but when it reaches the proper receivers it can be extremely powerful, even intoxicating. Can writers try to do this on paper? Would anyone pay them for it? Native Americans who think that simply insisting their writing is entitled are apt to find out their advantage is an illusion.

Born in Portland when all was calm just before WWII. Educated formally at NU and U of Chicago Div School. Clergy for ten years. Always happy on high prairie.