I recently came across a phrase in literary criticism that I don’t think I’ve ever seen. In this essay on LitHub, Jonathan Lethem described Shirley Jackson as a “reader’s writer.” Merely seeing those words got me to thinking about all of the times I’ve seen writers described as “writer’s writers.” The phrase “reader’s writer” makes a lot more sense to me than the other. To me, a reader’s writer is a writer who spins stories for the delight of an audience, to reel them in and keep them entertained until the very last word.
Writer’s writers are a little harder to define. Whenever I’ve seen that phrase before, it’s being used to label a writer who likes to experiment in ways that don’t always translate into book sales. It’s a phrase full of praise for a writer who pushes the boundaries of what’s possible with words. Although Lethem was writing in praise of Jackson, it’s hard not to think of the terms as opposed (if not opposite). In critical circles—and I’m thinking of professional book reviewers for The New York Review of Books, critics, and authors of literary fiction—writing for readers is not given as much value as writing to thrill critics and other writers. I’ve seen examples of each camp sneering at each other in book review pages and blog posts. The fans of writer’s writers champion the pursuit of pure art. The fans of readers’ writers champion the joy of story.
My reaction to the phrase writer’s writer—the above—encapsulates, I think, just how loaded the term is. That I am instantly put in mind of the wordy conflict between advocates of these two kinds of writers just by the sight of a phrase that flips “writer’s writer” around. But the more that I think about this, the more I wish critics and reviewers would retire the phrase. It’s a useful shortcut. Unfortunately, the term is overused and divisive. Instead, I would like to see reviewers and critics be more explicit in their discussions of authors and their work.
My own tastes put me in both groups. I love creative, challenging writers…as long as they give me a story with good characters, strong plots, and interesting settings. To my way of thinking, a book isn’t complete until a reader opens it and their imagination brings it to vivid life in their minds. And it isn’t hard to think of writers who can do both: N.K. Jemisin and Margaret Atwood, Colson Whitehead and Neil Gaiman, Emma Donoghue and Catheryne Valente. Get you a writer who can do both.