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The Imaginary Reader

Photograph of a lady reading by the water by Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos
  • By Adam Thirlwell
  • Issue 9
  • Essential

It is of course so difficult to embark on any long undertaking—and of long undertakings the one I know most about is a novel—that it’s natural to want, as reassurance, household gods who might guarantee that the undertaking will not be in vain, the way a Renaissance explorer might have cast about for patron saints, before voyaging over the flat sea. These reassurances are crucial to the undertaking beginning at all. Some of these, naturally, might be physical, a certain coffee or a certain felt-tip pen and notebook. But for me—who as I say am most seasoned in the long projects which are novels—the most important patron saint is something invisible and immaterial: the novel’s imaginary reader. I cannot contemplate a novel without an imaginary reader tucked inside it—like an erratum slip, or charm.

For the problem of any long project is how it is in fact a sequence of repeated moments. Every day you wake up and there’s the same task before you, and in such a case what’s truly essential is to have a continuous excitement—and not just external to the work, like cigarettes or bourbon, but internal to it, in its making. And for me the most excitement—by which I mean the most anxiety and interest—is provided by the contemplation of and dialogue with an absent and imaginary reader.

To the casual reader of a casual page, the act of writing might seem pure intellect and thoughtfulness, but really it is saturated in fear and loneliness. You are in your pajamas and sweating, or swearing. At every point you are haunted by the possibility of incomprehension. To cope with it, you emphasize to yourself that this writing is meant to be read, that it is designed not to remain in its own dismal solitude but to invade and entrance the solitude of another person. And how you think about this other person will vary depending on what precise emotions are in your head.

For there are moments in every work—and sometimes entire works—which encode small messages for a specific person who is known to you, most likely the person with whom you are currently in love. (I once saw an edition of Marcel Proust’s first novel, which he sent to one of his lovers, with particular passages underlined by Proust—in case his lover missed the crucial sentences intended for him in particular.) And then again there are opposite moments, when gleefully you can imagine how much a certain sentence or structure might enrage a reader you have never and will never meet: your anti-reader. The anti-reader can be as much of an excitement as the lover in an adjacent room. But most of all there is the spectrum between these opposing points.

One sacred text of the imaginary reader is the manifesto the poet Frank O’Hara wrote in New York in the 1950s, called “Personism,” in which he asserted that one of the minimal aspects of his ideal avant-garde poetry was that it should “address itself to one person (other than the poet himself).”

But why only poetry? This seems to me to be one of the minimal aspects of any art, including the art of the novel. And another reason why O’Hara seems to me a potential model for novelists is his unembarrassed ability to make it obvious how every poem has some kind of addressee. So many of his poems have a you in them, explicitly. And sure, sometimes it seems more than likely that this you is a very much particular you, whom O’Hara just doesn’t name: “When I am feeling depressed and anxious sullen / all you have to do is take your clothes off.” But O’Hara is also one of the subtlest writers of a you produced by the writing of the poem itself:

you see I have always wanted things to be beautiful
and now, for a change, they are!

The status of that second kind of you, I think, is very complicated and very beautiful. It is both concrete and abstract at the same time.

And I wonder if its deepest meaning or pleasure is to demonstrate or incarnate a truth which might not seem obvious, to the writer in her pajamas—that this art form, which seems so solitary, is in fact performance art. You just don’t get to see your audience.


Adam Thirlwell is the author of five books including, most recently, Lurid & Cute, his third novel.

Photo © Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos