A local cinema has been showing classic movies recently and I had the great pleasure of watching The Philadelphia Story on the big screen – the original 1940 version with a very young Jimmy Stewart playing a tabloid journalist, Macaulay Connor, and Katherine Hepburn as the reclusive heiress, Tracy Lord. Both characters despise each other on contact but there follows a wonderful scene in a library that illustrates beautifully the complex relationship and dialogue that exists between author and reader and I couldn’t help thinking about how true it still felt 72 years later.
Macaulay discovers Tracy in the library reading his book of short stories (the bookshop didn’t have it in stock). Tracy originally sought the book out in an attempt to dig up more dirt on the journo but is surprised and smitten by the sensitivity of his writing and left wondering at the contradictions between Macaulay’s gruff persona and the poetic, insightful author of the stories:
Tracy: These stories are beautiful. Why, Connor, they’re almost poetry.
Macaulay: Well, don’t kid yourself – they are.
Tracy: I can’t make you out at all, now.
Macaulay: Really? I thought I was easy.
Tracy: So did I. But you’re not. You, you talk so big and tough – and then you write like this. Which is which?
Macaulay: Both, I guess.
Tracy Lord’s quest to understand Macaulay’s dual natures is emblematic of the fascination readers have for authors. When we read a book or a story that resonates with us or inspires us, we can’t help but think of the person who wrote it and wonder at their alchemical ability to distil human experience into compelling prose. This often leads us to seek out the writer’s own story, to find greater meaning, context and insight into their work. Whether we be fans or critics, what we share in common is a desire to continue this new conversation with the author beyond the confines of the book itself.
This extended dialogue can be as rewarding and beneficial to the author as it is to the reader, if not more so. For example, following the library scene in The Philadelphia Story is a detailed discussion about one of Macaulay’s stories, “With the Rich and Mighty”, which resonates strongly with the wealthy Tracy Lord. She brings her own life perspective to the story, however, reaching some entirely different conclusions than Macaulay originally intended. The dialogue continues (often heatedly) throughout the film and eventually both author and reader gain new meaning and understanding from the story that neither could have perceived individually. This author/reader dialogue is at the heart of why we write and why we read and this remains as true today as it was in 1940.
Of course, many things have changed since The Philadelphia Story was produced, with the digital revolution and social media opening communication channels that were simply unimaginable to Jimmy Stewart and Katherine Hepburn. Authors now have the ability to connect directly with thousands, if not millions of readers and interact with their fan base on a much more personal level. From the literary point of view, the truest measure of a writer’s success isn’t how many books they sell but how many conversations they start—and authors are in a better position than ever to participate in these discussions.
While the unprecedented connection between author and reader is exciting, many authors are still cautious about opening up too much to their readers. Beyond the obvious privacy and security concerns that come with sharing your ideas and personal information online, there are serious literary reasons to remain aloof as well. As a writer friend of mine recently pointed out, good books need be able to stand on their own so that the reader can divine their own meanings and make their own judgements, without having it all prescribed by the author.
In this age of Google and Wikipedia readers will seek out information about the writers they enjoy, whether authors like it or not, so I would add that books need to not only stand on their own, but do so in coexistence with the author. For example, Macaulay’s short stories were able to be enjoyed and appreciated by Tracy despite her disagreements with and general dislike of Macaulay himself. Books have a life of their own and, just as a child’s beliefs can diverge from her parents once she goes out into society, a novel can take on entirely new meaning and significance once the world begins to work on it. Who knows? Your book may end up teaching you something you never knew about yourself.
The internet is offering entirely new spaces for authors and readers to connect and in many ways the very nature of publishing is changing. But as The Philadelphia Story shows, great books have always been about starting great conversations and today’s authors and readers are simply carrying on a wonderful dialogue that continues to tell us who we are.
In this post I have purely discussed the author/reader relationship in terms of its literary value but there is of course the commercial side to consider. Book promotion relies on starting conversations and this has the power to corrupt the discussion before it even starts. I will delve into the balancing act of book promotion in more detail in my next post.