Writers of fiction, it is often assumed, derive a solipsistic and almost wizardly pleasure in the mere act of creating worlds, in spending hours and years in “the streets, the factories, the cathedrals of the imagination” as Janet Frame puts it, just for the sake of it. Tolkien spent decades perfecting Middle Earth, and it is quite plausible to imagine that he did so in large part for his own amusement. But even the most self-sufficient authors are usually ultimately writing for others; they want their stories to be read.
Similarly, reading is an act of desire. When you browse the library shelves or open a book, you’re engaged in pleasure-seeking behavior. What sort of delight is desired depends on you, but delight is what you want.
My conclusion is that if a writer wants readers, the writing should give pleasure. With that in mind, here are some delights to be derived from reading. I’m sure you can think of others—if so, please share your thoughts!
I recently learned about a phenomenon called ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response), the tingling feeling that some people get in their heads and spines when something pleases them. I don’t remember ever feeling this myself but my husband says he got it as a child when he saw or read about people being kind to each other. For this reason, he is still particularly drawn to hospitality scenes in movies and literature.
Sharing a story is a kind of hospitality in itself: the writer wants to offer something tasty, and the reader wants to consume it. A writer wants to guide someone through the land of imagination, a reader wants to follow along and marvel at novel landscapes. If the bargain is kept up happily at both ends, the reader feels befriended and broadened.
Getting Carried Away
One of the greatest pleasures of reading is being spirited away—that is, temporarily forgetting your physical self and surroundings in order to inhabit a different consciousness and to roam about in a strange land surrounded by unfamiliar people and things. The more vivid and convincing the fictional world, the easier it is to be transported and transformed.
One of the appealing things about formulaic fiction (detective novels, romantic fiction, true crime) is that you know what kind of story to expect. The pleasure here depends on how well the author fulfils these expectations.
Even in fictional worlds, I am always unconsciously gathering experiences and perspectives and comparing them with my own. A story that examines a situation or idea that is ordinarily taboo or ignored or buried and that does so with radical honesty (rather than shock-jockeying) is necessarily interesting because it confronts accepted norms. Books that touch a nerve with their atypical-yet-honest views include Notes from the Underground, andthe works of Janet Frame and J.G. Ballard.
A writer who can make readers laugh will not be short of readers, hence Wodehouse. In books like Huckleberry Finn, Mansfield Park and Norwood humor emerges in an ear for mimicry and an eye that appreciates the anomalous and absurd.
Playfulness I would characterize as an author’s willingness and skill in manhandling reality. For a playful author, everything goes: shape-shifting, talking flies, devils incarnate, unexpected inversions and distortions of reality. In the short stories of R.A. Lafferty, for example, certain things happen that you know must be impossible and yet, within the framework of the story, they are convincing and disturbing. Examples of playful novels must include Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, The Zap Gun by Philip K. Dick and Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.