Goodbye, Gentle Reader; Hello, Hostile Reader

by Karl El-Koura

When I was young and impressionable, I spent many hours reading Isaac Asimov (and with over 500 books published in his lifetime—the man was a fountain of words—there was a lot to read). In his nonfiction work, Asimov’s favorite way of directly addressing his reader was as “Gentle Reader,” and those two words left an indelible mark on me.

So what’s your excuse?

You’re reading an article on writing, so I assume you’re a writer, or are interested in becoming one. Let me ask you, then: as a writer, do you think it’s unfair that an editor of a magazine you send your short story to might only read the first paragraph before rejecting it? And if you do, what’s your excuse? I’ve got mine: years of reading the Good Doctor Asimov, who convinced me that readers are gentle. But if you’re an unknown writer, your readers are as gentle as a pack of hungry wolves. They’re hostile, and they want your jugular.

Why? Because there are so many other ways they can spend their time. There’s television and the internet and music and games and sports and taking a nap and talking with grandma.

Encountering an unknown writer is difficult. Everything else being equal, talking to a friend you’ve known for a long time is easier than talking to a stranger. You don’t have to mention to your longtime friend that the recent experience with the dog terrified you because of what happened when you were five years old—he or she already knows that story. You have shared background knowledge that helps you interpret what your friend is saying.

For the same reason, reading an unknown writer is more work than reading a familiar one, and more work makes for a more hostile reader. A reader won’t forgive an unknown writer for a boring opener because he knows her stories get better as her work unfolds—he doesn’t know it. He won’t think it’s daring that she’s writing science fiction, because he doesn’t know that she was a mainstream writer to begin with.

I realized how hostile a reader I myself am when I was at the bookstore the other day. I picked up a large anthology of short stories and told myself: This time you’re reading each and every one. The thought came as a shock: without even realizing it, I’d been buying anthologies but skipping a lot of the stories. I was sick of it—if you’re buying this anthology, I was telling myself, you’ll read every word you paid for. But of course it won’t happen that way, because for many of the authors in this anthology (most of them well-known and respected) I’m a hostile reader.

Let me give you an example: when I was a kid, I borrowed from the library a large anthology of science fiction short stories. I don’t remember the title, but it was a large blue book and the theme was something like the best short stories of the last 50 years. I skipped almost every one of those cream-of-the-crop stories: I had homework to do, girls to figure out, games and sports to play, other books to read.

There was, however, one short story I didn’t skip. I wanted to: it was the last or one of the last stories, and I was anxious to return the book to the library; it was by a writer I’d never heard of (Philip K. Dick); and the title (”Second Variety”) was bland. But, hostile as I was, Dick had me by the first paragraph and wouldn’t let go until the very last word. Very soon, I was reading all his other short stories and his novels; Dick quickly became one of my favorite writers. He won me over by avoiding a mistake too many writers make: Dick didn’t assume that readers owed him their attention.

Think about it this way: Does the person interviewing you for a position owe you the job? Does the client owe you a sale? Of course not. Why, then, do so many writers believe that a reader owes them attention? Why, for so many years, did I write as if my hypothesized reader would stick by me no matter what? Why did I think that this reader would forgive me a boring paragraph or a boring scene? Was it because I was a lazy writer? Maybe. But maybe it was because of that oft-used phrase of Isaac’s—”Gentle Reader”—which had become deeply ingrained in my psyche.

It’s not an easy shift, to go from picturing a nice, gentle, smiling audience to an audience that will walk out on me (and go out of their way to step on my toes) if I can’t keep their attention from wandering. But it’s a shift I’m trying to make.

Every time I sit down to edit, and sometimes when I sit down to write, I try to keep my hostile reader in mind. I try to realize that at every word and every sentence and every paragraph and every scene, the reader’s mind may start to drift. I may never achieve my goal, but I want those pretty eyes glued to my words, gobbling them up one after the other. And I expect the same from the writers I read—especially when it comes to short fiction.

Readers who buy your book will do so because of a good recommendation (from a friend or a reviewer), or because of the cover art, the blurbs on the back, or something that caught their eyes as they flipped through your pages—but for short work, the title and the first paragraph carry all the weight. A great title often allows readers to forgive a weak opener; it launches them into your story with a burst of momentum. If a reader doesn’t know you, or didn’t particularly enjoy her last literary encounter with you, a great title will build up enough good will that she’s much more likely to give your story a chance.

After making the title great, you need to make the opener great too. Don’t lose that momentum! And don’t stop there, either: make the second paragraph as good as the first, and the third as good as the second. Don’t allow the slush reader to set down your manuscript; don’t allow the reader to move on to the next story. Don’t assume a gentle, forgiving audience—picture a bloodthirsty mob ready to trample over your story, leave it for dead, and move on to the next one. Don’t let it happen! Make your words tractor-beam your reader’s forehead, and don’t let go until the very end.

Granted: when I was a kid, Isaac Asimov could do no wrong; if something had his byline, I read it. Maybe your name is so well-loved that none of this advice applies to you—your readers love you, and will follow you anywhere you take them. Which is great—unless you realize that for some potential reader out there, you’re an unknown quantity. As famous as you are, someone out there has never read your work, and maybe never even heard of you. Or if they have heard of you, they might be more biased against you because of it. For years I avoided Stephen King’s work; then one day, I started reading one of his short stories—and before I knew it, I was finished.

No matter who you are, then—an unknown writer looking for your first big sale, or a known writer trying to gain a wider readership—say goodbye to the comforting image of a gentle reader and embrace your hostile reader. If it doesn’t drive you insane, it will make you a better writer.

P.S. Thank you for reading to the end, Gentle Reader.

Author of more than forty published stories and articles, Karl El-Koura lives in Greely, Ontario (Canada). He holds a second-degree black belt in karate, a yellow belt in jiu jitsu, and works for the Canadian Federal Public Service. For more information about Karl, visit his website at karl.elkoura.ca.