Writing for My Readers – Part II


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEarly in this series on recurring themes in my novel A Fitting Place, I mused on the need to create characters that resonate with my readers … to make my readers shiver with recognition as they follow the hopes and fears, the defeats and triumphs of fictional individuals whose life situations may be very different from their own, but whose emotional responses they recognize instantly.

The need for resonance from my readers looms large in my mind as I complete the final draft and incorporate the insightful suggestions of my editor.

It is a bit of serendipity that this final phase of my writing coincides with a semester-long course in the Philosophy of Art where we have repeatedly asked how to determine if a created object rises to the standard of art.

Herewith a few thoughts on how selected theories of art apply to getting resonance from my readers:

  • An early approach, going back to Plato and Aristotle, was the theory of representation, which required that art imitate life. While the focus of the theory was on the intentionality and skill of the artist, it implicitly required that the viewer—or the reader—recognize and appreciate the aspect of life being portrayed.
  • This theory went by the boards with the arrival of modern (e.g., abstract) art, to be replaced by the theory of expression. Here, the artist/author had to be motivated by an emotionally significant experience and transmit the emotion to the viewer. There has been ongoing debate about the need for the viewer/reader to experience exactly the same emotion as the artist/author, but without some degree of emotional resonance, it cannot be considered art.
  • A third approach is the theory of aesthetic emotion, for which the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant was a key proponent. In Kant’s view, appreciation of art is a wholly subjective experience that we assume others will share, but which cannot be defined or explained in conceptual terms.  In other words, adhering to the rules of the writer’s craft matters not if my readers don’t respond with a sensory feeling connected in some mysterious way to the meaningfulness of life.
  • My personal favorite is the theory of the text, proposed by Roland Barthes, a 20th century French literary theorist and critic.  Barthes makes the case that meaning is not created by the artist, but by the reader. In other words, it doesn’t matter what story I intended to tell, or what emotions I intended to convey.  What matters is whether my readers, as they engage with the words on the page, experience that shiver of recognition, that moment of aliveness that comes from being in touch with the universal human condition.

As I worked on A Fitting Place, I have pored over dozens if not hundred of articles about the craft of writing … things to do and things not to do.  The serendipity of the philosophy course, coming at this particular moment in time, lies in its timely and frequent reminder that, however skilled the craftsman, it is not good writing unless it touches the reader’s soul.

What do you think is required for writing to rise to level of art?


This blog continues the discussion on themes related to my novel.  I welcome comments and guest blogs from my readers based on their own experiences.  Let me know if you’d like join the discussion by doing a guest blog. 



  1. Mary, I appreciate how you are able to distill complex theoretical concepts into practical, meaningful nuggets for writers. What does it take for readers to experience that “shiver of recognition and connect with the universal human condition”? IMHO, Writing as honestly and authentically as possible from your heart which requires connecting with your purpose of your story and trusting in your own voice. No simple task. It requires lots of practice. That’s why we need to keep writing and rewriting. Thanks for another’s thought-provoking and informative post.

  2. Mary, Such richness you bring to your readers. I’m with you on the “theory of the text.” No work is complete whether it be a painting or a poem until a reader or viewer happens by. That’s why it is so important to get our work out there. Otherwise it will never be complete.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Joan … thanks so much …I take so much pleasure from the writing process itself … the way it connects me with other thinkers and writers (like yourself). But ultimately, one writes, I think, because we believe we have something to say that is worth saying … and it serves no purpose to say it to oneself.

      BTW, how are you feeling?

  3. Kathy .. thanks for those kind words. Right now I am in the final throes of writing authentically, but given my logical, analytical bent, reaching for that shiver of recognition seems to stretch me beyond what I thought I could do. Which explains why it has taken several days to respond to your lovely comment.

  4. I’m catching up on my reading today. Your last thought: “What matters is whether my readers, as they engage with the words on the page, experience that shiver of recognition, that moment of aliveness that comes from being in touch with the universal human condition.” gives me shivers of recognition. Yes! The transcendent, core purpose of Story is that sense of connection. Godspeed on your journey to completion of your novel. I can’t wait to read it!

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Sharon … your comment started my day off with a smile. Thanks so much for that.

      And I hope I can begin to catch up with my social media friends … I am so far behind!

  5. Great post, Mary. I also am inclined to agree with Barthes. All art is self-expression, but not all self-expression is art. The creator of a work doesn’t get to apply that label in any honest artistic discipline I know of. It’s up to those who are moved sufficiently when exposed to it, that give it that appellation. If you endeavor to “make art”, often all you make is self-indulgent, overblown junk. It’s much easier to write something entertaining and accessible than it is to set out to become a literati in one blow.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Thanks, Richard … nice to have you stop by again. I thought about the author’s opinion, as I placed my novel in the category of “literary fiction.” If that means it’s a book with a conceptual framework as well as a plot, then it’s in the right place. But if “literary” is taken to mean being a member of the canon of great writers, I know I have a long way to go. But there was no better category. If I’d had my druthers, it would have been “psychological thriller.”