Critics often speak, somewhat condescendingly, of the “naïve reader” – one who doesn’t have the benefit of an awareness of literary history, or of training in criticism and literary theory, or of an extensive knowledge of literature as an art form. (In other words, a reader who isn’t a critic or a scholar, but a common-or-garden reader for pleasure. Joe Six-Pack, or his sister Jane, spending their beer or appletini money on a book instead.)
I’ll admit, there’s a pleasure to be had in writing for an audience who knows all the inside baseball of the thing. I’ve done it myself, at least once. The short story “A Death in the Working” (originally published in Murder by Magic, now available in Two from the Mageworlds) plays with three different sets of inside knowledge: the established canon of the space opera series I co-wrote with my husband James D. Macdonald, the traditions of the Golden Age country-house mystery story, and (the part I had the most fun with) the tone and format of various scholarly editions of literary works, especially those in the Methuen Old English Library, where the footnotes would often take up more room on the page than the actual text.
Nevertheless, the most gratifying comment I ever got on the story wasn’t an appreciation of all that insider geekery; it came from a reader who said that they’d like to read more stories about my fictional detective and his cases. (I sometimes toy with the idea of taking that reader up on their request; but science-fiction/fantasy mystery novels are enough of a niche market that I don’t know if the gain would repay the effort.)
When I think of naïve readers, I also think of the fellow grad student in Old English who admitted to translating the final section of Beowulf with tears in her eyes, because in all her survey courses and the like they’d only read the first part of the poem, and so she didn’t know that – to put it in ROT-13 just in case anybody reading this is in a similar position — Orbjhys trgf xvyyrq ol gur qentba va gur raq. Or I think of a friend’s account of watching a performance of King Lear a few seats away from an older couple who had clearly never encountered the play at all before, who reacted to the blinding of Gloucester with profound shock and dismay. Or I think about my great-uncle Jake, a huntin’, fishin’ good old boy from Arkansas – albeit one with a college education – who once said to his medievalist great-niece, “That Beowulf . . . he was a mighty hunter.”
Art is about getting people where they live, and a naïve reader will provide you with a response that’s unmediated by other people’s expectations of how they should react and feel. It’s all very well to be the critics’ darling, but treasure your naïve readers as well . . . they will tell you a different kind of truth.