The Unknown Reader

Written by Jakob Straub

It was Ralph Collier who said, "Usually, the food that you get in art museums is institutional revenge for the art that you get in restaurants."

Upon first reflection, food is something vital and art something obsolete. But on second thought, one might arrive at the conclusion that just like food can be so much more than stuff devoured to keep from starving, art can also become integral in a person's life. Since we no longer have to spend all day hunting down food, we have time to consume art, as well as the time to create it in the first place. Most people come across that sensation at least once in their lives; it's similar to an itch which needs scratching, when you have to give in and pick up a brush or a chisel or a pen, and sometimes it's accompanied by the wonder what is art.

As for writing, especially young people seem to be prone to yield to compulsive scribbling away, recording every single thought circling in their heads and rising to the surface of the mind. Institutions like writing workshops, poetry slams, and literary cafes provide a forum for such aspiring writers in an attempt to attract crowds with a taste for youth literature or pastries and coffee, or ideally both -- even some internet mailing lists tend to associate writing with caffeine-containing beverages, and newbies are handed a virtual welcome cookie. But since the coffee already falls far short of my expectations, what can I possibly expect from the writing that will be presented here?

The people who come here to do a reading probably started out writing diaries in their teenage years. Admittedly, this might be a prejudice and a vast generalization on my side, but isn?t it true that the feelings and dreams of youth are best shut away between the covers of a journal? After pages and pages of "Dear Diary," the question might arise in some just for whom they are documenting their everyday life so chronological and meticulously. This is the moment where they stop seeing sense in their writing and pack it in altogether, or they pronounce themselves a writer. The belief that their work will no longer disappear forever in a drawer is personified in the form of an unknown reader. Not one sentence, however hastily spliced together, not a single word, however carefully chosen, will elude the examination of this reader, who is characterized by the fact that he knows exactly where to look. An outside observer might call this personification quality.

The written pieces of teens all contain clues to the imagination or hunch they have of the existence of the unknown reader, because they are writing for him, whether intentionally or unconsciously. Each piece of writing summons him in a different way, but the general approach to describing him will remain the same, once it has been chosen. The leitmotif of such an author's work is the style of his writing, manifested in new variations of the same and characterizing the writer.

It does not influence what he is writing about, but is a limitation nonetheless. While some are contented with the attempt to reveal the identity of the unknown reader by coincidence, applying ever new names to him, others get lost in arguments whether a piece appeals to him on itself by something inherent in the words chosen, or if beauty lies just in the eye of this beholder. They are blind beggars crying for alms, blind to the fact that naming a thing anew over and over will not change it, and not seeing that the Unknown Reader is neither subject nor object. Any attempt of an exact definition of that reader is bound to fail; and yet, people stoically believe in his existence. This belief is common to all writers, but the argument about the Unknown Reader's appearance divides them.

Whoever is bold enough to climb onstage at an "open mic" occasion and recite a piece of his writing will harvest an uncomfortable silence. After a long moment, and bit by bit, comments will trickle in. With extreme care people complement each other, avoiding critical remarks. Everyone keeps their mental reservation that what has just been read cannot possibly be equal to their own work. The different ideas of quality are too diverse, and everyone falls for the belief that only the own writing can satisfy the Unknown Reader. Of course, there are rare occasions when you have to admit the brilliance of a fellow writer, the beauty of his ably crafted piece; but the rising doubt about the quality of one's own work is quickly discarded by the assumption that the other writer does not share -- that intense feeling -- upon writing, the intuitive understanding of what is good, therefore being right, and ultimately defying futility.

Just like a manic-depressive is self-centred, we concentrate solely on our own writing and remain ignorant of those who also have a try at it. Now and then, when a young writer has peered beyond his own pages and is filled with admiration for another one's work, there will be imitation and copying, repercussively influencing the imitating person's idea of the Unknown Reader. He influences our writing, and those who feel superior to him and question his existence will tear apart each finished page, and will do so with pleasure, because they cannot find any sense in their writing. It seems impossible to us to find and take on, to acquire a certain style of our own which would allow us to write just for the sake of writing, for it would be a style that could save the finished piece from the eyes of the Unknown Reader.