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Frank H. Wu Headshot

Readers, Writers, Non-Readers and Me

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I love my readers. I would write regardless, but all authors whom I know appreciate readers -- those who are indifferent to them likely aren't the sort of people whom one ever comes to know. I welcome correspondence from individuals who want to engage with the ideas I have offered. With social media, it's easy enough to contact me.

I am humbled. A note from a stranger whose life I have influenced means as much, if not more, than the same honor from a friend. Across space and time, with nothing more than words, it turns out to be possible to change the world at least a bit.

But I cannot say I am flattered by the inquiries from people who have not bothered to pick up either of my books and instead request a summary. It makes me wonder what is wrong with our educational system: high school students inform me that their teachers have suggested they interview me about my work for their term paper. Some have the gall to ask that I send back an explanation of my main points.

I do want to write them back, as well as their teachers, politely directing them to my work. Perhaps I would point out to them less graciously that what they are suggesting essentially is that I do their work.

I do not care if they pay for what I have done either. It's available at the library. I'd be pleased to communicate about it afterward. That seems fair.

It took years of research to produce these texts. The reason for my effort was to make the material accessible in a written format. My hope was not to have to repeat myself in private audiences for adolescents.

I also give speeches for that matter. These performances are public and free, except the one time I found myself in the New York Film Festival, and a person who was doing more than finishing an assignment would be welcome to come. They might enjoy it.

From time to time, I hear from folks too who take issue with what I have said -- or what they believe I have said. I remind myself that if they comprehend me to be asserting the opposite of what I meant, the fault likely is on my part. Someone who objects to an essay at least has perused it.

Yes, in the past authors exchanged correspondence with readers. They wrote back, sometimes famously, as Rainer Maria Rilke did in his Letters to a Young Poet, still an inspiring source of advice, or J.D. Salinger did to admirers, to the prurient interest of later observers.

However, the emphasis in that relationship should be on the roles: author and reader. I doubt authors, even the most solicitous, replied to non-readers who asked that they be given the short version of the Duino Elegies or Catcher in the Rye.

I shared my sentiments with the most successful writer who went through the program with me at Johns Hopkins University. My friend Timothy Krieder, whose art has always had admirers, said it seems as if my "non-readers" are mistaking me for "a sort of human wikipedia of your own work." Having introduced themselves virtually, they make the mistake we all do. A content producer who would rather not be known by that name, Tim noted, "People generally forget that the internet consists of other human beings, the same way they forget there are actually people in other cars on the highway."

My grievance is not great. It is, rather, a gesture as resigned as defiant toward the expectations we have toward one another in this era. We have generated for ourselves simulations of meaningful interactions with other people and illusions of affinity within artificial communities. A writer and a reader are removed from a speaker and an audience, but both dynamics are better than that of the sender of an email who is unknown and the recipient who thus is uncaring.

What can I say? I make no apologies for being a grouch about missives from non-readers.