(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

“Honor Thy Reader.” Philip Gerard

“I sometimes think that good readers are poets as singular, and as awesome, as great authors themselves.” Jorge Luis Borges

“I was at a symposium some years back with my friends Joseph Heller and William Styron, both dead now, and we were talking about the death of the novel and the death of poetry, and Styron pointed out that the novel has always been an elitist art form. It’s an art form for very few people, because only a few can read very well. I’ve said that to open a novel is to arrive in a music hall and be handed a viola. You have to perform. To stare at horizontal lines of phonetic symbols and Arabic numbers and be able to put a show on in your head, it requires the reader to perform. If you can do it, you can go whaling in the South Pacific with Herman Melville, or you can watch Madame Bovary make a mess of her life in Paris. With pictures and movies, all you have to do is sit there and look at them and it happens to you.” Kurt Vonnegut [my italics]

“A writer’s job is to use the time of a stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.” Kurt Vonnegut

“The clearest thing Plotinus says of mystical experience itself is to be found in the comparison he makes of it to the condition of a person absorbed in his reading to the point of being unaware that he is reading.” Elmer O’Brien

“Inherent in the novel is the possibility of a shared act of the imagination between its writer and its reader.” Eudora Welty

“Books are humanity in print.” Barbara Tuchman

“There has occurred the experience of the writer in writing the novel, and now there occurs the experience of the reader in reading it. More than one mind and heart go into this.” Eudora Welty

“I always come to life after coming to books.” Jorge Luis Borges

“My library was dukedom large enough.” William Shakespeare

“For this is where genuine freedom is born and nurtured—in the one-to-one confrontation between the reader’s consciousness and reality as presented by the artist.” Valentine Tschebotarioff Bill

“The novel has its own particular resource, which is close to magical. If you write purely enough and your style’s good enough, you can establish a communion between yourself and the reader that can be found in no other art, and this communion can continue not only for hours but for weeks, years. When the novel is dead, then the technological society will be totally upon us.” Norman Mailer

“My wish is that when the reader has finished with this book, he will have the sense of belonging in it.” John Steinbeck

“Every text is a lazy machine asking the reader to do some of its work.” Umberto Eco

“The writer’s true palette is the reader’s imagination.” Ulf Wolf

“What I want this great sprawling book to do is to be like an experience to the reader, so that perhaps after a little while he will not know whether he read it or whether it happened to him.” John Steinbeck

“While it must explode with emotion, it must be restrained in treatment. Almost as though the reader brought his own pocket full of emotion to the page.” John Steinbeck

“If serious reading dwindles to near nothingness, it will probably mean that the thing we’re talking about when we use the word ‘identity’ has reached an end.” Don DeLillo

“I want the participation of my reader. I want him to be so involved that it will be his story.” John Steinbeck

“The reader became the book; and summer night/Was like the conscious being of the book.” Wallace Stevens

“He’ll take from my book what he can bring to it. The dull witted will get dullness and the brilliant may find things in my book I didn’t know were there. And just as he is like me, I hope my book is enough like him so that he may find in it interest and recognition and some beauty as one finds in a friend.” John Steinbeck

“[Bishop Berkeley] wrote that the taste of the apple is neither in the apple itself—the apple cannot test itself—nor in the mouth of the eater. It requires a contact between them. The same thing happens to a book or to a collection of a book, to library. For what is a book in itself? A book is a physical object in a world of physical objects. It is set of dead symbols. And then the right reader comes along, and the words—or rather the poetry behind the words, for the words themselves are mere symbols—spring to life, and we have a resurrection of the word.” Jorge Luis Borges

“I think we can only allude, we can only try to make the reader imagine. The reader, if her is quick enough, can be satisfied with our merely hinting at something.” Jorge Luis Borges

“Reading well is one of the great pleasures that solitude can afford you, because it is, at least in my experience, the most healing of pleasures.” Harold Bloom

“Think of reading, then, as an act of praise, of prayer, even, in which individuals reassert their devotion to creation and to the immanent world in which we reside, a world in which every aspect of life, from old tires piled high in a trash heap to the multiform patterns of snowflakes on a day in high winter, from the sickness of murder to the charity of parenthood, all make up part of a larger pattern. And when we read, we reenact that pattern, an activity that may be as close to serious prayer as most of us will get.” Alan Cheuse

“The words, like musical notations, are mere potential art, waiting to be performed by the reader on the interior stage of the imagination. And just as nothing could be more public than the performance of a play, nothing could be more private than the reading of a novel or story. As novelist Laura Furman has suggested, reading may in fact be the last private activity of merit in our culture.” Alan Cheuse

“To know another mind. To know another life. To feel oneself in the heart of another age, in the heart of another human being. To live out the entire trajectory of a human motivation and understand its fullness in time. To move out of ourselves, lifted into another scene, another action, another destiny, so that we might gain a better sense of our own. To warm our spirits by the heat of a fine story, to help us keep the vision (even if illusion) of order in a world constantly on the verge of chaos.” Alan Cheuse

“I think of writing as a kind of collaboration. That is to say, the reader does his part of the work; he is enriching the book.” Jorge Luis Borges

“The good piece of writing startles the reader back into Life.” Joy Williams

“A book itself is not an aesthetic act, it is a physical object among others. The aesthetic act can only take place when a book is written or read.” Jorge Luis Borges

“A book is just a wad of wood pulp until a pair of intelligent eyes scans its lines, and then it begins happening in a cognitively literal way inside a stranger’s imagination.” Philip Gerard

“It’s a marriage, if you will, between writer and reader.” Philip Gerard

“I was a hospitable reader in those days, a polite explorer of the lives of others.” Jorge Luis Borges

“Readability, I have been told, is not everything. Neither is breathing, but it does come before whatever comes next.” John Ciardi

“Between writer and reader there is a communication, but how intricate, how complex, how inexplicable. That which is creative in the writer is necessarily matched by a creativity in the reader.” William Sloane

“In so far as the writer has known more than he says, the reader will in turn draw from the pages more than is there in print. “ Elizabeth Bowen

“Writing . . . means something considerably more than the mere putting down of words on paper. It means eliciting responses. It means accepting the reader as a more than passive coauthor of the work as it comes into its true life.” William Sloane

“Your first reader, and your most important reader, is always yourself, in fact. So I basically write what I know is going to please me, what I am going to enjoy.” John Fowles

“Your reader will not separate form and matter . . . he takes in your page as a meaning communicated, not as an exercise in writing.” Jacques Barzun

“I am, after all, not just the novel’s creator but its first reader.” Stephen King

“The novel is a writer’s one on one audience with a soul.” Ulf Wolf

“I think that the novel has not caught up with the modern world in the sense of what the novelist can leave out. This is one of the great qualities a novelist must have, knowing what to omit, what to leave out. Many novelists, I am afraid I would accuse the Americans a little bit here, write far too many words. They do not let the reader do any work. You must, you see, get the reader on your side and the way to get people on your side is to give them pleasant work or intriguing, interesting work. Therefore, all that you leave out, all the gaps in your text, are so much fuel for this one-to-one relationship you have with the reader.” John Fowles

“A writer’s experience builds, a reader’s experience resonates.” Ulf Wolf

“Each new reader is, for the writer, a new co-author.” William Sloane

“Art’s validity can only be tested by an imaginative act on the reader’s part.” John Gardner

“Enthusiasm is the force that keeps you going and keeps the reader in your grip. When your zest begins to ebb, the reader is the first person to know it.” William Zinsser

“You are writing primarily to please yourself, and if you go about it with enjoyment you will also entertain the readers who are worth writing for. If you lose the dullards back in the dust, you don’t want them anyway.” William Zinsser

“Call that one person you write for Ideal Reader. He or she is going to be in your writing room all the time: in the flesh once you open the door and let the world back in to shine on the bubble of your dream, in spirit during the sometimes troubling and often exhilarating days of the first draft, when the door is closed.” Stephen King

“What I’ve been doing is trying to do country so you don’t remember the words after you read it but actually have the Country. It is hard because to do it you have to see the country all complete all the time you write and not just have a romantic feeling about it.” Ernest Hemingway

“Who is this elusive creature, the reader? The reader is someone with an attention span of about 30 seconds—a person assailed by many forces competing for attention.” William Zinsser

“If the reader is lost, it’s usually because the writer hasn’t been careful enough.” William Zinsser

“Faced with such obstacles [careless writing], readers are at first tenacious. They blame themselves—they obviously missed something, and they go back over the mystifying sentence, or over the whole paragraph, piecing it out like an ancient rune, making guesses and moving on. But they won’t do that for long. The writer is making them work too hard, and they will look for one who is better at the craft.” William Zinsser

“Readers want to know—very soon—what’s in it for them.” William Zinsser

“I have never known a man [William Sloane] who was more learned and more lucid in discussing the structure of fiction and nonfiction, the management of a scene, or the contract of art and craft that binds reader to author and author to reader in the shared experience of the writing.” John Ciardi

“Leaving out is a major part of the skill of a writer—that is, persuading readers to supply what is not said. This applies all the way down the line, from major ideas to minor description of characters. Most of us learn that too exact notations of human appearance are harmful because they cramp the readers’ imagination (though they may not realize it consciously). Hints are better, not exact mimesis; dots, which readers must join up to make the picture. Readers possess a huge stock of latent imagination, both archetypal and in terms of everyday things, and one needs to use this.” John Fowles

“We are much more inclined to forget, if we can, that the book is an object of art, and to treat it as a piece of the life around us; we fashion for ourselves, we objectify, the elements in it that happen to strike us most keenly, such as an effective scene or a brilliant character. These things take shape in the mind of the reader; they are re-created and set up where the mind’s eye can rest on them.” Percy Lubbock

“The reader of a novel—by which I mean the critical reader—is himself a novelist; he is the maker of a book which may or may not please his taste when he is finished, but of a book for which he must take his own share of the responsibility.” Percy Lubbock

“Communication through printed symbols requires almost as much effort and ‘creativity’—and as much sensitivity—from the recipient as from the sender, though much of this takes place in the reader at an unconscious level.” John Fowles

“In a sense you yourself constitute your most important reader; if it doesn’t please you, then sure as hell it’s not going to please anybody else.” John Fowles

“The one thing the fiction reader does not want to be given is something where every question is answered; surely one of the most important functions of the novel is to create, not exactly a sense of mystery, but to leave spaces which the reader has got to fill in.” John Fowles

“The novelist doesn’t write to express himself, he doesn’t write simply to render a vision he believes true, rather he renders his vision so that it can be transferred, as nearly whole as possible, to his reader. You can safely ignore the reader’s taste, but you can’t ignore his nature, you can’t ignore his limited patience. Your problem is going to be difficult in direct proportion as your beliefs depart from his.” Flannery O’Connor

“It is what writer, character, and reader share that makes it possible to write fiction at all.” Flannery O’Connor

“The reader co-creates a good story, creates his own universe with it, and that is the joy of reading.” Ulf Wolf

“You have always first to write for yourself; then, if you’re lucky enough, as I have been, to have lots of feedback, you write also for this acquired constant reader, the compound familiar ghost.” John Fowles

“However many times a book is read, it takes place, it becomes real, between two people always. And I feel that some novelists don’t really realize that, they they’re sort of addressing an audience of thousands.” John Fowles

“The audience I usually try to keep in mind is one other person. This is because the reading experience is always, however many million times it takes place, one to one. There are just two people present: me and the person who is reading my book.” John Fowles

“The art of the novel is also very much bound up with the art of leaving the reader to fill the gaps.” John Fowles

“I think the writer can paint a person more truly, more fully, than can any other medium, film included. For he works in close conspiracy with the reader.” Ulf Wolf

“The reader and writer conspire to bring the story alive.” Ulf Wolf

“The novelist does not have a relationship with readers, in the plural. We have to remember it is always with one reader and that reader you have to tickle as you ‘tickle’ a trout, you have to evoke a world, to tease their emotions.” John Fowles

“You are appealing in most novels, I think, to the corresponding junk-room nature of the reader’s mind from your own. It is not by theory, by logic, by order, as a rule, that you establish this communion with this one reader who is your brother or sister in the experience of reading a book.” John Fowles

“The relationship in writing is a one-to-one relationship. There is the writer and there is the reader. One of each. At any given instance there may be any number of such paired relationships going on, but that is an enumerative fact, not a psychological one.” William Sloane

“The editor is much more actively creative than the ordinary reader. He is not correcting themes or marking off for spelling. He is listening for the sound of people in what the author has submitted. He judges character by whether readers will recognize and believe. He judges dialogue by whether readers will hear it.” William Sloane

“Editors also know that people who are really readers want to read. They hunger to read. They will forgive a vast number of clumsinesses and scamped work of every sort if the author will delight them just enough to keep them able to continue.” William Sloane

“Audiences generate a group experience familiar to every actor; writing is meant to induce a private experience in the reader.” William Sloane

“All readers are people, and writing is always a person-to-person matter.” William Sloane

“Great writing and writers about greatness have assumed greatness in their readers. Shakespeare assumes the king and the magician and the coward and the hero in everyone. The skill and the desire to reach the reader are what carry the greatness, if it exists.” William Sloane”

“The people who make a book literature are its readers.” William Sloane

“Readers, almost alone, keep a writer alive after he has stopped writing. When a book is not passing under the eye of the reader, when it is on the shelf, it is nothing but ink and paper and cloth—an artifact. If it has permanence, if it is a classic, it still has no separate life. It lives only in the repeated experience of it, in the memories of those who have experienced it, and in the minds of those who come to it.” William Sloane

“What he [the reader] is saying is, ‘Tell me about me. I want to be more alive. Give me me.’ All the great fiction of the world satisfies this need: it tells me about me.” William Sloan

“The real reader is not studying anything, he is not noticing anything. He is simply rapt. He is absorbed. He is unaware of the writer or of his other self.” William Sloane

“I believe fiction is as much of a reality as any other experience that the reader undertakes. Call it vicarious if you like, but the reader is not a spectator, he is a participant.” William Sloane

“I believe that basically you write for two people; yourself to try to make it absolutely perfect; or if not that then wonderful. Then you write for who you love whether she can read or write or not and whether she is alive or dead.” Ernest Hemingway

“Certainly, books should be judged by those who read them—not explained by the writer.” Ernest Hemingway

“Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.” Henry David Thoreau

“Whether a reader is able to identify himself with the characters of a story depends both on the maturity of the story and the maturity of the reader.” S.I. Hayakawa

“There are two kinds of identification which a reader may make with characters in a story. First, he may recognize in the story-character a more or less realistic representation of himself. . . . Secondly, the reader may find, by identifying himself with the story-character, the fulfillment of his own desires. . . .The former kind rests upon the similarity of the reader’s experiences with those of the story-character, while the latter kind rests upon the dissimilarity between the reader’s dull life and the story-character’s interesting life.” S.I. Hayakawa

“From the point of view of the reader, the fact that language is social is again of central importance. The ordering of experiences and attitudes accomplished linguistically by the writer produces, in the reader, some ordering of his own experiences and attitudes. The reader becomes, as a result of this ordering, somewhat better organized himself. That’s what art is for.” S.I. Hayakawa

“Prose is a human exchange between writer and reader.” Constance Hale

“Remember . . . every Audience is ready to tire, and the moment they begin to tire, all our Eloquence goes for nothing. A loose and verbose manner never fails to create disgust . . . better [to say] too little, than too much.” Hugh Blair

“Incorrect usage [of words] will lose you the readers you would most like to win.” William Zinsser

“The reader plays a major role in the act of writing and must be given room to play it. Don’t annoy your readers by over-explaining—by telling them something they already know or can surmise.” William Zinsser

“We bring to the reading of a book certain imaginative faculties which are in use all day long, faculties that enable us to complete, in our minds, the people and scenes which the novelist describes—to give them dimensions, to see round them, to make them ‘real’.” Percy Lubbock

“Book-buyers aren’t attracted, by and large, by the literary merits of a novel; book-buyers want a good story to take with them on the airplane, something that will first fascinate them, then pull them in and keep them turning their pages. This happens, I think, when readers recognize the people in a book, their behaviors, their surroundings, and their talk. When the reader hears strong echoes of his or her own life and beliefs, he or she is apt to become more invested in the story.” Stephen King

“In reading, one should notice and fondle details.” Vladimir Nabokov

“Reading involves nothing more than thinking with other people’s brains.” Arthur Schopenhauer

“After all, writing is a business like any other, subject to prevailing market factors.” Mark Jacobson

“Indeed, part of the craft of writing consists in knowing what readers will carry easily in their heads after one mention. To remember and to strain to remember are vastly different acts of mind—as is shown by one’s impatience with the overdetailing storyteller or the writer who does not know what to skip.” Jacques Barzun

“I find myself happiest in the middle of a book in which I forget that I am reading, but am immersed in a made-up life lived at the highest pitch.” Pat Conroy

“To read well is an act of dynamic receptivity that creates a profound sense of exchange, and I like being on both ends of it.” Mary Gaitskill

“When the first illuminated manuscripts were created, few people could read. Now that people are bombarded with image and information and the World Wide Web is an open vein, few people can read. Reading with sustained attention, reading for understanding, reading to cut through random meaninglessness—such reading becomes a subversive act. We’re not talking detective books, romance, cookbooks, or self-help. We’re talking about the books writer read to feel themselves among allies, to feed themselves, to reach across time and distance, to hope.” Jayne Anne Phillips

“‘A reader’—a relative or friend whose judgment he can use. Notice I did not say ‘whose judgment he will take.’” Jacques Barzun

“No, your special reader (or two or three at most) must be chosen from those who care for writing as much as for you—no writer wants his work to shine in a charitable light. . . . The basic principle here as always is to protect the work and not the self.” Jacques Barzun

“One test of a book is whether it stands up to rereading.” Philip Gerard

“Enduring works of narrative seem to achieve a golden balance between immersing the reader wholly in the world of the story and making the reader aware at some level of its beauty and meaning—its art.” Philip Gerard

“The reader will face the unpleasant, the difficult, even the hideous, the monstrous, if he can be reassured he will be enlightened, not merely shocked by the experience.” Philip Gerard

“One can go off into fanciness if one writes to a huge nebulous group but I think it will be necessary to speak very straight and clearly and simply if I address my book to two little boys who will be men before they read my book.” John Steinbeck

“The reader should never be in doubt about the literal action of the story—what he has seen and heard. The reader needs to know all the facts clearly.” Philip Gerard

“The overriding principle: Trust your reader.” Philip Gerard

“Your reader wants the writer to respect his intelligence, to make him feel included, not to show off your erudition at his expense.” Philip Gerard

“Your reader wants to be clear on the literal action of the story—who is actually doing what to whom, where, when, and in what real world context.” Philip Gerard

“Your reader wants to learn things he never knew before, to feel a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment and enlightenment for having read your book.” Philip Gerard

“The reader wants to feel elevated rather than debased by reading your book.” Philip Gerard

“Great books—like all great art—are great precisely because they change lives. They have an indelible effect on the imagination, the conscience, the intellect of those who experience them.” Philip Gerard

“This is an old-fashioned novel, . . . It will achieve any effect it has by accumulation rather than by quick and flashing periods.” John Steinbeck

“I have never had a reader in mind. I have ideas, people, events, shapes, and I write ‘for’ those things, and hope that the completed work will be of interest to others. But which others? In the case of Midnight’s Children I certainly felt that if its subcontinental readers had rejected the work, I should have thought it a failure, no matter what the reaction in the West. So I would say that I write ‘for’ people who feel part of the things I write ‘about’, but also for everyone else that I can reach. “ Salman Rushdie

“The habit of reading is the only enjoyment in which there is no alloy; it lasts when all other pleasures fade.” Anthony Trollope

“Reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more important, it finds homes for us everywhere.” Jean Rhys

“Nobody gets in closer to a reader than a novelist, not even his mother.” Anthony Trollope

“As a reader, I want a book to kidnap me into its world. Its world must make the so-called real world seem flimsy. Its world must lure me to return. When I close the book, I should feel bereft.” Erica Jong

“Turgenev’s idea that the writer states the essential and lets the reader do the rest.” Virginia Woolf

“No audience. No echo.” Virginia Woolf