The Reader and the Story

‘The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.’
― Ursula K. Le Guin

Stories are many things to many people. They are whispered to us from the moment we are born, we are encouraged to read them for ourselves as soon as we are able and we die with them lingering on our lips. Stories drive us through our days and carry us through our nights. They can forge identities, define our relationships and explain the world to us in ways we might never have imagined. The reader’s job is a rich and varied one and in the kingdom of the story the reader is queen.

Without the reader, as Le Guin points out, the story cannot live. Angela Carter knew this. She said reading a book was like re-writing it for yourself’. This resonates for me, given the sense of ownership a good story can instil in a faithful reader, and the protective anxiety any loose talk of a film, television adaptation or a reworking of any kind can invoke. I’m thinking about The Great Gatsby myself, although you doubtless have your own titles to protect and I could list you ten more right here but that is a discussion we can always have later down the line.

Readers take stories away with them and make them their own. Readers are a law unto themselves and there is nothing the writer can do about that. Readers are playful rogues, sometimes misremembering stories and retelling them in a different way, sometimes drawing themes out of the words that the writer had no conscious intention of putting in there so at last it becomes a sister story to the one first set down, sometimes forgetting the story altogether only to rediscover it anew at a later date.

Nabokov, in his Lectures on Literature considered that a good reader should have imagination, a good memory, a dictionary and some artistic sense. Virginia Woolf in her essay How Should One Read A Book suggested the reader’s attitude should be ‘to take no advice, to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions’.

Elena Ferrante, the Italian author whose identity, for years a guarded secret, was recently revealed by a journalist, has said that a book, once written, has no need of its author at all and leaves the reader to make their own way through the words.

It might seem strange or contrary then that I will be writing a commentary on this blog around the themes of each story that appears in the Feminist Times. However, I promise to offer no advice and I will definitely leave the reader to their own conclusions. For once a writer has finished she must give the story away and hope the readers will do a good job of their side of the bargain. It is hard work, this reading life, but somebody has to do it and let the stories come alive.

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