theoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do

Well, that, to me, is always the trick of dramaturgy; theoretically, perfectly, what one wants to do is put the protagonist and the audience in exactly the same position.

David Mamet to John Lahr, interviewer for Paris Review Number 142, Spring 1997.

When I read this, it seemed quite straightforward, and I felt convinced of what Mamet said. Rules and pronouncements often do that. Then I realised that only half of me was won over by Mamet’s assumption of authority, conviction and the fierce economy of how he speaks. The other half of me doesn’t like being told that there are unbreakable rules. Full stop. Let alone in some activity that you might call ‘art’.

In this case the half of me that likes a neat analogy, and I acknowledge there is something a little totalitarian about that, decided to carry on and consider whether this proposition might apply to my own writing. For example, perhaps in the sort of non-fiction I write, I could substitute ‘the reader’ for Mamet’s ‘the audience’ and end up with a useful guiding principle? I took the comparison a bit further.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that what I write in Lost and Gone Away could be thought of as ‘memoir’ and that, in a memoir, ‘the author’, the one who speaks, is the nearest thing to a protagonist. So, do I put the reader and ‘the author’ in the same position? Yes, I think I do. I move the author around in time and space and I say what she is thinking. I might make her scared or surprised. In that sense the narrating ‘I’ is a character and when the reader is reading with the narrator, the reader might well discover the same things as that character does.

But sometimes the reader might be reading against the character. Given the universe of readers, and their propensity to make their own meanings, as I am doing with Mamet’s sentence from 1997, it seems likely that sometimes I will, perhaps unwittingly, put the reader and the narrator in very different positions. I will not know when in the text that reaction occurs, and I probably couldn’t cause it to happen or stop it happening, even if I tried.

Could I put the reader in the same place as the protagonist of my memoir? Yes, that might happen, but not predictably, because of the skiittery nature of readers and my unwillingness to try to herd them. Would I use this as the goal? No.