October 04, 2010


Jeff White

I think translation is a very apt metaphor. Writing well is a problem in epistemology, moving information or ideas from point A (the writer) to point B (the reader) through the complex medium of written language, like the telephone game you play as a kid. Translation is that taken to the correlative extreme—you are not only struggling against the normal difficulties of clear communication (difficulties which, if you've been in a relationship, should understand) but also the hindrances of a completely foreign tongue.
The untrained writer plays telephone.
The trained writer translates.
Cunningham speaks of the training writer.

Kathe Koja

And to write "for yourself" means, really, to write for the work, to serve the work: to create according to the needs of the piece of fiction being written, not to please an imaginary reader, editor, marketplace (or real ones!), or to mitigate any external pressures or demands.


Very valid points about Cunningham's condescension and scattered thinking. But I do agree that the translator evolves the original by translating it. At least, this seems to be the case, as I have had occasion to compare many original Russian works with their English translations, and have often found rather massive differences between the two. And not just linguistic differences, but substantive ones. Which has always baffled me. Milan Kundera had this unhappy experience decades ago when he finally compared the original of his works with their translation into French and English.

The situation is even worse for poetry, where whole stanzas will be placed in a different order, and entirely new lines invented. It's really scandalous, but a hidden one.


For myself, thinking about writing for all the future readers (or non-readers) might, as you say, lead to despair.

Thinking about writing for the few, gives us hope.

And those few come from all walks of life.


Writing only for oneself is just as much a troubling notion, possibly even a naive one (wilful or otherwise). Censoring/controlling/editing self-indulgent impulses, for example, already posits a reader who brings certain standards or expectations to the text, expectations which may then be transformed but exist nevertheless.


Sorry, Lee but I have no idea what you're trying to say. Every reader - without exception - has standards or expectations, whether acknowledged or not. That sort of seems to state the obvious. But what the expectation of a reader has to do with the choice of a writer is not at all clear. Want to try again?

Kathe Koja

If you write for the self, then the self is a reader. If you write for the work, the (eventual) reader is elsewhere.


Most good writers I have known, when I asked them who their audience is while they are writing, almost always give the same answer. "I write for my friends." Which strikes me as a perfectly legitimate answer.

The writers I've known who have a more grandiose idea of their audience usually have not been very good writers.



Cunningham didn't say he started writing cookie-cutter genre stories, right? He just said he started considering the timeless fundamentals of holding a reader's interest.

Even if he really meant 'write trashy thrillers for Helen,' why can't trashy thrillers for Helen be great and lasting works? Shakespeare wrote borrowed-plot genre stuff with an audience in mind, and his writings are still read, not stillborn.

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