The Constructed Reader

Every text constructs a reader for itself. (You, my friend!) Whenever writers write, it is with the assumption that they are addressing others who do not know what they are explaining. Each time a narrator “recounts facts which he knows perfectly well,” writes Barthes, we find “a sign of the reading act, for there would not be much sense in the narrator giving himself information” (“An Introduction” 260).

Let’s test this assertion by considering a couple of potential exceptions. How about a note to self, like “Don’t forget to call Dad on Father’s Day”? Wouldn’t that be a “narrator giving himself information”? Actually, I would be writing to a future me who may have forgotten, therefore, a constructed reader who does not know.

T310 PL 52-53

Even when someone writes exclusively for himself, he envisions a reader. The recluse Henry Darger wrote the longest novel of all time, an astounding 15,143 pages: In the Realms of the Unreal. The massive manuscript was discovered in his apartment after he died, along with thousands of drawings, paintings and collages, including panoramas that were eight feet long. Darger, who lived alone and had no friends, did not intend to share the book. Nor is there any indication he hoped it would be discovered after his death, for the range and volume of material make it unpublishable. He wrote it, drew it and painted it for a phantom reader.

Take this line near the beginning of his magnum opus, which sets up the central conflict: “The assassination of the child labor rebel Annie Aronburg . . . was the most shocking child murder ever caused by the Glandelinian Government.” Why would the narrator need to give himself such information about the cause of the great war, the seriousness of the crime, or the background of Annie Aronburg? Clearly, the narrator is speaking to someone, although Darger could never have imagined it would be you. (Watch Jessica Yu’s stunning documentary In the Realms of the Unreal [2004] to learn more about Darger and his book.)

Whenever a text is directed toward a reader, that reader is necessarily a fiction, someone less than an entire being. When you send a text message, you are writing a “friend,” a “daughter,” a “drinking buddy,” or a “boss.” When a businesswoman writes an email, she is not addressing a whole being, but a person performing a particular role, such as “the marketing director.” Currently, I am writing to certain facets of certain people I think might read Narrative Madness. I create fictional versions of acquaintances and invent strangers. I animate you all and try to imagine how you would respond. (What? I haven’t always guessed what you wanted to say? Well, speak a little louder!)

As you read a text, you sense the part it is asking you to play. A mystery novel, for instance, would like you to be an attentive reader, carefully considering clues, but it does not want you to solve the mystery too soon. That would kill the suspense. This book would like you to be a skeptical but ultimately enthusiastic reader. When confronted with your role, you may play along or resist. You may even do both. Whatever you choose, you are assuming a role as reader and that role is never your whole self. It is a fiction.

The clearest illustration I can come up with is as a viewer of film. Although I love the movie Vertigo (1958), I think the director Alfred Hitchcock took a misstep when he shifted the limited point of view away from the main character, Scottie. (If you haven’t seen the movie, skip this paragraph.) For several minutes, viewers get another character’s perspective and memories, confirming that this unemployed actress from Kansas, Judy, had indeed pretended to be Madeleine, the haunted socialite. If Hitchcock had not shown us these flashbacks, we would have gone on wondering, along with Scottie, if Judy and Madeleine were the same person. As it is, the mystery drains out of the film.

I understand that Hitchcock did this deliberately to turn the viewer’s attention to the psychology of the characters, but I watch Hitchcock primarily for the suspense. So when I rewatched the film recently, I cut out that scene, fast forwarding over it with my eyes closed. As I did so, I realized I was inventing a character for myself: a viewer who had not seen the movie and knew nothing about the deleted scene. As I watched, I was also playing the part of the knowing viewer who recognizes clues and reinterprets scenes with foreknowledge of the denouement. Somehow I was able effortlessly to juggle both these roles and others, such as an avid Hitchcock fan and a critical viewer.

(An extract of my book Narrative Madness, edited by Katie Fox, which you can get at narrativemadness.com or on Amazon.)

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland, and Lionel Duisit. “An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative.” New Literary History 6.2 (1975): 237 – 272. JSTOR. PDF.

Vertigo. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Paramount Pictures, 1958. DVD.

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