A morning short story reading group meets at one of our library branches on the second Monday of each month. The library provides the short stories, snacks, and a staff member to make coffee and keep things moving along. That staff member is me.
I’m learning a lot about how readers read.
The story discussed this month was Aleksander Hemon’s “The Conductor,” from his collection Love and Obstacles (2009).
“The Conductor” is narrated by a young Bosnian man who fancies himself a poet of great talent and emotional depth, despite the inability of others to recognize this. One day, he meets the country’s most famous poet—a dissolute older man who sits outside a tavern and drinks and tells stories—and writes poetry of beautiful brokenness. The narrator doesn’t think much of the older poet or his work, but is accepted, more or less, into the poet’s circle of cronies, but is introduced by the older man as an orchestral conductor, instead of a writer, something that annoys the narrator to no end. Over time, the young narrator eventually loses his home, his country, and his illusions about his own talents. He becomes successful in his own way, translating the older poet’s work into English and eventually writing his own short stories. Many years later, he meets the older poet one last time, at a writer’s workshop, and discovers that though he once judged the great poet an ugly joke, he can now recognize the beauty in the elderly, broken man.
Essentially, for me, this is a writer’s story. It takes the reader through arrogance and anxious ego, the success, the guilt, the discomfort and the growth. I appreciated this story, even when it made me cringe with self-recognition.
But I wasn’t sure how the discussion was going to go. Especially after watching almost every single member come in, sit down and ask, “Can anyone tell me what this story was about?”
I figured we’d end up shrugging at each other for the fifteen minutes it would take to eat all the mini-cupcakes and complain about my coffee and call it a day.
Instead, it was the best discussion we’ve ever had.
Here’s what I learned this month:
Readers have trouble separating the author from the narrator, but that’s not always wrong.
This story does have strong parallels with the author’s life. Both Mr. Hemon and the young narrator are from Sarajevo, they both were in America when Bosnia was invaded and were unable to return home. They settled in the States and established successful writing careers and many of their stories involve Bosnia.
It’s no wonder that many of us became confused about which one was being discussed We finally decided to call Mr. Hemon “The Author” while the narrator was called “The Conductor”—and some of us still had problems.
I freely admit that I had a hard time separating them, too. One reader in particular blew me away—she said it was fascinating that while The Conductor couldn’t write decent poetry, The Author, who had written the gorgeous lines for the older poet, was a fantastic poet.
My first reaction was that of course The Author hadn’t written the poems. The old guy had.
This led to a side discussion about how much of fiction is actually autobiographical. According to my group, a lot of fiction—maybe all of it— is embellished autobiography or wish fulfillment, even when it’s science fiction, which one lady described as “soap operas in tin foil.”*
I asked whether Stephen King wrote autobiographies, and a few agreed that, at the very basic core of the story, he did, which is why his human beings, most of them, were so sympathetic—or so easy to hate.
And maybe writing what you know is actually that fundamental. We all know—or most of us do—what it is to be human. And good communication between a writer and a reader hinges on that.
Readers, generally speaking, sympathize with writers.
One or two of our members disliked this story because the old poet was so arrogant and mean to the young wannabe narrator. They thought he should have encouraged him, or given him constructive criticism. Some felt that the older poet did the young man a favor in the long run, because his true talent was short stories—though they agreed there was nothing in the story to suggestion the older poet knew this at all, or cared.
Most sympathized with the narrator later on, when he felt like a fraud, read only because he’d become the “Bosnian poster child.” The Conductor was waiting for someone to come up to him and tell him he was a fraud for earning a living as a writer. I told them that many authors seem to feel that way, and a few nodded, saying how difficult it must be for artists to put themselves out there, time after time, and not know if their work will be accepted.
All of them knew how hard it was to be published unless you were a brand name.
Readers influence readers.
At the beginning of the meeting, all but two readers were confused about this story. Those two readers told us what they thought the story meant. Others chimed in, agreeing, disagreeing, or asking for clarification. Paragraphs were read aloud and favorite lines were shared.
At the end, when I usually gather up the previous story for recycling, only three people handed in “The Conductor.” The rest wanted to read it again.
As one said, “The story they read sounds pretty good. I think I’ll give it another try.”
And this is why reading groups are great and good things.
*I immediately put science fiction on my list for next year’s stories. I’ll show ’em—or not.