I’d like to say an extremely sincere congratulations to the very first reader’s writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. What is a reader’s writer? A term I’ve potentially just made up—I didn’t bother to Google. But the gist is, all writers fall into three categories, listed here in increasing order of enjoyability: intellectuals’ writers, writers’ writers, and readers’ writers.
First, intellectuals’ writers. This group writes books for people who don’t really seem to…enjoy reading, per se? Intellectuals’ writers don’t care about story or character much, or world building at all—or maybe it’s that they just care about things like style and structure and Pushing The Boundaries of Literature so much more. “Smart” people think these writers are “the best” but I don’t fuck with them unless they’re assigned in a class, and even then, I never finished Moby Dick. Life’s too short.
Don DeLillo is in this category. So’s Roberto Bolaño. W.G. Sebald. Doris Lessing, maybe. Djuna Barnes, definitely. Thomas Pynchon is like the president of this category, and his Veep is Cormac McCarthy. A certain type of male reader reads these books almost exclusively—as far as I can tell, for the sole purpose of gaining status as part of some weird male reader pissing order that’s not visible to me. It’s boring, is what I’m saying.
Next, writers’ writers—you’ve heard of them. This category is great! They write beautifully crafted books with well developed characters and believable dialogue and extremely gorgeous prose. No one reads them but other writers. They enjoy a brief window of Celebrity Fawning at things like the AWP conference which they keynote once a decade because they actually do need the speaker’s fee, and then they fade back into Midwestern obscurity to continue producing novels and short story collections that are technically and emotionally perfect but often weak on plot and tension and therefore very easy to leave on one’s nightstand for a year or more only partially read.
If you’ve been in an MFA program you know all the writers’ writers: Ethan Canin, Lydia Davis, Lorrie Moore, James Salter, Marilynne Robinson, Edward P. Jones, Denis Johnson, etc., etc. Occasionally there’s a writer’s writer that writers will try reaaaaaally hard to make cross over. For example, I keep on buying my mom Alice Munro books for Christmas, and she keeps on hating them. “Too depressing, Sara.” They’re writers’ writers, and that’s where they’ll stay.
So, getting to the point, the final (and best) category: readers’ writers. These are writers who fucking GET IT, who understand that the majority of people—even very smart people!—don’t read books as intellectual showmanship and don’t want to get raked over extremely hot emotional coals for 400 pages, or at least if that happens they want a fucking good story along with it to distract them. These are books that remind you of why you liked books as a kid, that build immersive and strange worlds for you to inhabit, that don’t present themselves as lifeless Slabs of Ideas or make you relive your divorce in slow motion with nothing to offer as redemption but perfectly executed free indirect discourse. These books have STAKES and humor and characters making really quite bad choices and more often than not at least one pretty hot sex scene. You start reading, and the next thing you know it’s 2 a.m. When’s the last time that happened to you with Karl Ove Knausgård?
I’ll level with you that a lot a lot a lot of the writing in this category isn’t particularly good—your Lee Childs and Danielle Steeles and what have you are definitely readers’ writers; it’s a big bucket. But there are good, even great writers here, too. Margaret Atwood. Donna Tartt. Jennifer Egan. Jeffrey Eugenides. Colson Whitehead. Larry McMurtry. Jonathan Franzen, even though he hates it and definitely wants to be an intellectual’s writer instead. Sorry, Johnny, Freedom fucking bangs and even my mom likes Patty.
The Nobel, historically, has been almost exclusively awarded to intellectual’s writers, with a few writer’s writers sprinkled in (Bob Dylan, for the record: writer’s writer). The Nobel committee on the whole rewards density, vagueness, impenetrability, technical craft, historical import. They commend writers for things like “cartography of structures of power” and “bitter insights and linguistic ingenuity” and “ironic precision.” I’m not arguing that they shouldn’t do this, necessarily—just that their imprimatur is pretty much a guarantee of non-fun.
But now, Kazuo Ishiguro. He’s our man. Haven’t read Never Let Me Go? Pick it up. Hope you don’t have any plans, because it’s a page-turner about human clones, and you’re not leaving the house until it’s done, guaranteed.