The creation of any piece of art, poem, play, statue, novel, design, etc, is a process in three parts: idea, realization, consumption. In terms of the novel, the first two are the domain of the writer, the third, the reader.
For the work of art to be efficacious all three must be fulfilled, especially the third. That manuscript in the bottom draw is not a work of art until someone reads it and is affected by it; the watercolor behind the wardrobe is not a work of art until someone sees it and is affected by it, no matter how little the effect is: a smile, a feeling of calm, even an annoyance. There must be artistic input and emotional output.
The writer writes what he writes. The page is not a mirror (Colm Toibin), you cannot see the writer on the page, you see the writer’s imagination on the page. The writer has exercised his imagination and fulfilled the first two requirements: idea and execution. The writer has used whatever tools at his disposal to create the text: story, characters, point of view, tone, etc. How you, the reader, interpret the text is solely in your hands. The writer cannot, and should not, tell you how to interpret what he’s written. Of course the writer wants you to be excited by the exciting bits, and to be titilated by the titilating bits but the meaning and your reaction to that meaning is yours, and yours alone.
The writer does not know what psychological and emotional history the reader brings to a book. The writer does not need to know that. The writer does not care if you are invigorated, inspired, aroused, or horrified: as long as something is going on in your head: a change, an understanding, a revelation, a realization. Something.
If you feel nothing, really feel nothing, then the artistic endeavor is a failure; don’t finish it, don’t recommend it to a friend, don’t buy the sequel.
When I describe a galley kitchen, I don’t describe it in detail; what is on the left, what is on the right, the oven on the wall or next to the sink. I don’t describe it in detail because I want the reader to bring his own history to play and fill in the detail. Describing a man as ‘tall, with many chins, a gaping shirt and straining buttons’ says more about the character than a page of physical description and personal behavior. Jane Austen knew this.
All a writer wants from a reader is to read well. A good time – TV off, kids in bed, and a good place – comfortable chair, good light. And the reading has to be active, not passive. The best way to describe what I mean is with an analogy: read a text the way you actively listen to music. Do not let the music wash over you, passively, unless this is your intent, to fall asleep; listen ‘into’ the music. Follow the guitar for a while, then the vocals; find the violin and follow it; trace the melody across all the instruments, find its shape, marvel at its colors. And so with reading. It’s an active task, not a passive one.
An artistic endeavor is a work of art when it challenges itself. Language is not perfect. Writing is the transference of ideas and images from one brain to another via little black marks on a whitish page. It isn’t as perfect as a photograph. Showing a photograph of Portifino is far more accurate a transference of images and feelings than writing about it. When a writer understands this and tries to stretch the limitations, add to the palette, broaden the techniques, build on the work of others, and expand his own boundaries; and it is appreciated, then this is a work of art. Ulysses is a work of art because it attempts to do all these things. It is difficult to read now, especially the final monologue and even more difficult to understand; but other factors also come into play. Obscurity in art was popular at the time of Joyce’s creation, more so then than now. But this stretching of the limitations was what Joyce was trying to do; it’s what Virginia Woolfe was also trying to do, and so was Conrad, Wilkie Collins, Christina Stead, Steinbeck, Marques, Llossa, Patrick White, and it is what contempory writers are trying to do now; well, the really good ones anyway.
These days reading is for enjoyment, in fact it really always has been.