We were talking yesterday morning about Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” about how that story continues to speak to the reader more than half a century after its original publication. On the one hand, it’s simply an elegant, ironic accounting of fictional events; on the other, it’s a damning consideration of the role of ritual and sacrifice in a culture that no longer honors ceremony. Tessie Hutchinson is no sacred vestal raised with a glorious sense of her own purpose, tenderly brought to sacrifice for the greater good of the community. She is a random, reluctant victim and therein lies the story’s horror.
Jackson had an idea about what we are as a society, an idea that many readers experience as I do, a sense of the danger inherent to rituals divorced from their original meanings. Each time I reread the story, I am shocked again at Tessie’s desperation, at her friends and family as they pragmatically shoulder rocks in order to stone her to death. I feel for Tessie, I actually feel her fear as if I am the one in the center of the square and the pebbles and stones are beginning to land on my face and arms.
An artist’s purpose is to go places that others haven’t been. If we’re doing our jobs well, readers follow us. Readers live vicariously through the experiences we imagine. We read to feel, don’t we? And when we write, we write to evoke emotion. I mean, we actively and consciously choose events and language, character and structure, to guide our readers to emotional experience. You can be Carver or Hemingway, Proust or Faulkner, Atwood or Davis or Munro, it does not matter: moving the reader is the goal.
Your art, in fact, is not about you. It’s about your audience. And the more you speak to the needs of our culture, the wider the audience you will find. The more you align your writing to feelings others want to have, the wider the audience you’ll find. I’d never really thought about writing as leadership before, but in a certain sense, that’s what it is. You’re out there, working on the edge of what you think you can do, putting one sentence down after another. You’re feeling the pebbles hit your skin, in the hope that someone else, someone you’ve never met, will one day read your sentence, and close her eyes, cringing, hoping the stones will miss their mark.