Me, Sam, and the Reader

I used to write fiction in the 1990s and early 2000s — short stories at first, and then novels. Some of the stories were published in literary journals, and one even won an erotic fiction contest (yes, even though I am a librarian). I published two of the novels myself. You can see them all here. I switched to non-fiction about a decade ago. Certainly in the fiction, and importantly in the non-fiction as well, I’ve always strived not to be self-indulgent. That is, not to write things just because they are of interest to me or because I happen to know something about something or because I want to make a point about something else. The last one is particularly one of the tenets that I hold strongly for fiction: didacticism has no place. If it’s fiction, it’s the words that matter, not the content.

I am also careful about the My Sam Johnson book as well. The baseline story is the biography of Johnson, and so I will have to be careful as I weave in comments about myself. Will the reader want to hear that? Will my own lived experienced next to Johnson’s tend to bolster or sully the point, or seem irrelevant — or self-indulgent. Most of the biographies, by far, of Johnson don’t do this kind of thing. The closest I know — and I have only just started reading it, on the recommendation of Johnson scholar Jack Lynch — is Helen Deutsch’s Loving Dr Johnson. It’s an interesting read so far, but I have found that the text gets mired in academic lingo that can be hard to discern:

Here Johnsonian authority plays itself out in a joke that reverses the standard formula: the joke’s usual object is also its originator, at once excluded from the proper linguistic register and able to turn that register to improper use in an admission of her own lack. In this gendered scene of absence both canonical and physical, professional power is embodied, reinforced, and threatened, rehearsing, on a comic scale, the drama of disavowal of their hero’s death that Johnsonians perform as they gaze upon the author’s body in an attempt to keep him forever whole, alive, and before their eyes.

I will persist with the book, as there are many good things I have already discovered there, too.

The excision of self-indulgent passages is part of the editing process, and the whole purpose of course is to make a product that a reader will enjoy (and understand), not one where she or he feels that the writer is “going off” on something — a tangent or a favourite target. And in the case of my own book, it all has to relate to Johnson and not overly interfere with that main narrative.

2 replies
  1. Wayne
    Wayne says:

    hey Oscar, Thanks for the comment. I think you make a good point. The trick — well, not the “trick” but the thing that I as writer will have to be always conscious of — is not engaging in self-indulgence, so that a story about Johnson that relates to me has so much of me in it that the reader starts to lose interest, or not see the point or connection.

  2. Oscar
    Oscar says:

    Yes, the reader is going to want that. At least this reader. Bringing yourself into the book as a character could make the book more accessible and interesting. I mean, I could be interested in Sam, but I might be more interested in why Sam is interesting to you.

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