Friday, May 5, 2017

The Ideal Reader, by Susan Oleksiw

Recently a friend commented that she didn’t like eBooks because she couldn’t see what other people were reading when she rode the subway or stopped in a coffee shop. She was curious about who was reading what. I know how she feels.

We can no longer look at a stranger holding a book and be intrigued, surprised, or smugly satisfied at making the right guess about what the other person is reading. I once sat behind a woman on the subway reading a book I had ghost-written. Although I was dying to ask her what she thought of it, I held back. Reading in public is still a private act. Now, with the spread of e-Readers, books have become anonymous. It’s as if the entire world walked around with books in plain brown wrapping paper.

One of the reasons I like being able to see who is reading what is the way it challenges assumptions. Most of the people I see holding physical books are not the author’s “ideal reader” for that book. The title of choice at once expands the assumptions we make about someone else, about the man dressed like a banker reading a history of the Navajos, or the woman in sneakers half-watching her kids at the playground and half reading a biography of John J. Audubon.

The concept of the ideal reader has been around since the first storytellers looked around the campfire and directed their tale to the most eager member of the audience. According to Dr. L. Kip Wheeler of the website Literary Vocabulary, the ideal reader is the person who would, ideally,“understand every phrase, word, and allusion in a literary work, and who would completely understand the literary experience an author presents, and then responds emotionally as the writer wished.”

Stephen King has said his wife, Tabitha, is his ideal reader. He shows everything to her first. John Updike picked a location for the teenage boy he expected to be reading his stories. “When I write, I aim in my mind not toward New York but toward a vague spot a little to the east of Kansas,” he said in Writers at Work (edited by George Plimpton, 1976).

Some writers suggest the ideal reader should be specific, and one website ( offers a list of details to fill in, to create the person a writer imagines reading her work. The list includes such features as name, gender, age, education, occupation, marital and family status, and much more. The intention is to recognize that the ideal reader is a specific person, a character, which must be fleshed out in great detail. I confess to never having done anything so detailed, and I’m not sure I could pick my ideal reader out of a crowd.

For me, the ideal reader is someone who isn’t in a hurry, and settles down to read. She is female and reads widely. She is definitely not pretentious, but she is satisfied with herself and thoughtful. I can’t say where she lives because, thanks to the miracle of the Internet, I have found readers in the most unexpected places. That means that I’ve found readers outside New England.

Now I’m wondering about other writers’ ideal readers. Do you have an ideal reader? When did you come to know who this is? Did you create this person or make a discovery while you were writing?


Susan Oleksiw said...

My apologies to my readers of the blog for the changes in the type. No matter how many times I redid this, it came out the same. This has been a week of computer glitches, and I hope this one is the last.

Jacqueline Seewald said...


No apologies are needed. I run into glitches all the time myself. Just part of dealing with computers.

As to the ideal reader, I always like to see what other people are reading as well. In the past, it has started many an interesting conversation. I myself prefer reading print when possible--and as I get older, I love reading books in large print editions--which means I visit the library often. I hope my own novels will appeal to both reader of print and ebooks. I also know that women are mainly my audience.

Susan Oleksiw said...


I hope there are always people holding a paper book in their hands--it's one of the pleasures of taking the subway or walking through a coffee shop. It sounds like your ideal reader is as vague as mine, but as long as people are reading, I'm satisfied. Thanks for commenting.

carl brookins said...

My ideal reader is someone who buys my book or borrows it from the library, or borrows a friend's copy, reads and enjoys the story and recommends it to others.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Carl, no one will disagree with that description, least of all me. Thanks for adding that.

Irene Bennett Brown said...

My ideal reader happened by accident. I was writing YA novels at the time and had just given a presentation at a Portland, Oregon library. As I was leaving the library in the pouring rain, I recognized a girl ahead of me from my book signing. As she walked in the rain she was reading my book, her grandmother (surely a patient soul and maybe a book lover herself) holding an umbrella over her.

Susan Oleksiw said...

What a wonderful experience, Irene. I don't know if your experience is common, but it is a rare treat to see the one who loves your book enjoying it (and isn't a relative). Thanks for sharing this.

Unknown said...

My ideal reader is someone willing to work a little--to figure out what I'm occasionally alluding to, who has some cultural competency. I'm surprised by statements that puzzle people who apparently don't know much about the world we live in, or science, or history, or culture. I know I'm always delighted when I figure out such things, and although my work is certainly not full of them, it's not written for sixth graders either. Sound pretentious? Not meant to be. We read in part to expand our horizons.

Bobbi A. Chukran, Author said...

I still wonder who my ideal reader is. I recently discovered that most of the time, my children's plays, which are Texas-style spoofs of fairy tales, get produced in places like ND, WI, NY, SD and MN. It's harder to track my short story readers, unless they contact me. In general, I think they are mostly women who appreciate quirky characters (who sometimes curse) and like reading about small town life. Other than that, I have no clue. LOL

bobbi c.

Susan Oleksiw said...


I agree with you completely on the gaps in readers' knowledge and the apparent lack of curiosity. Some of the cultural allusions I include can be explained with a dictionary, but that doesn't seem to occur to anyone. Thank you for describing your intent, and no, I don't think it's pretentious. I expect to be challenged by what I read, not bored. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

Susan Oleksiw said...

Bobbi, the information about your plays is interesting. Something is resonating in other areas. It sounds like you're not worried about writing to a specific ideal reader and neither am I. It feels too limiting. Thanks for commenting.

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