Reader, writer, text: An awkward threesome?

Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray recently had this reader shifting in her seat. There’s so much sexy ogling in the narrative voice. It’s quite splendid, but in this information overload age it can be supremely difficult not to think about every juicy detail you know about a writer while you’re reading their text. And that can be uncomfortable, or at the very least intrusive.

I’ve said it before: art doesn’t and can’t live in a vacuum. Indeed, there was scandal aplenty surrounding Wilde during his life, and it does bring up a some questions about the story of the writer and that story’s relationship to the text.

Once we know many details about someone (artist, writer), they can amazingly – suddenly – lose their appeal. And, sure enough, this applies to characters too. One rule of thumb when writing characters is that too much information can mean death for the reader’s imagination. Therefore, only put in (for example) observations about a character’s looks which can tell us something about their overall character, or if that detail will play a part in the story as it unfolds. Steer well clear of value judgements unless it’s in dialogue: a character’s point of view.

I read a Mills and Boon romance when I was a teenager, in which the narrator went on and on about the allegedly gorgeous male object of desire, and went on to tell us why he was desirable. Not one of his features was on my own private, teenage catalogue of desired attributes (he didn’t resemble anyone in Duran Duran, for example), and I ended up putting the book down, thinking, ‘Yuu-uu-huuk. Too much information!’

These kinds of literary indulgences tell us about the writer, not the character. They tell us about the writer’s own desires, which just creates distance between text and reader. (Note brazen attempt to distract from the text by adding picture of teen idol …)

In the same way a relationship between friends is a dynamic, so a relationship between a reader and a text is a dynamic.

As soon as you put another character into the mix (for example, the writer and their story – or their desires), you end up with an awkward threesome.

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