One of the more interesting aspects of being a columnist is the interaction it enables with different types of readers…

Over the last two and a half years, this column has explored the dynamics of a wide variety of human relationships. However, as I was going through one particular email response to my last piece, it struck me that a relationship it has not touched upon is that between readers and writers. The email response I specifically refer to is from a very observant and astute reader who took the trouble to point out what I believe was an avoidable oversight in my piece on innocent divorcees. He drew my attention to the fact that the census data I had referred to in support of my argument that there were three times as many widowed as divorced people in our country was in fact based on the 2001 census and not the 2011 census as I had written, since the complete data for the latter has not yet been released. He's absolutely correct and I am happy to apologise for the oversight. Of course, I don't think that this will change the substance of my argument, for, I believe that despite the increase in divorce rates over the intervening 10 year period, the majority of divorcees, innocent or otherwise, do get married again and will probably be reflected in the census data under the ‘married' category. However, that is not the point of this piece. The relationship between reader and writer is.

Different expectations

What is fascinating about the reader-writer relationship is that it is, although a seemingly ‘virtual' one, like most other relationships, based on mutual expectations that often remain unexpressed. When I started writing this column I, of course, expected to be read, considering the space in which it appears, but have been sometimes astonished, pleasurably though, by the volume and quality of interactions I have had with those who read what I have written. Many of them share their thoughts, views and suggestions, giving me a glimpse, even if fleetingly, into their minds, their personalities and their lives. One of my favourites is a professor who, regardless of which part of the world he travels to, makes it a point to not only read every piece I write but also send me his considered views and comments on the subject.

The bulk of my correspondence though is confidential, from readers who identify with some aspect of what I have written and, perhaps emboldened by the relative anonymity that the medium of email offers them, write, in detail, about the difficult circumstances of their lives or a particularly knotty problem they are currently facing for which they seek advice. In many ways, the relationship between readers and writers of advice columns or for that matter, advice books, is analogous to the therapist-client relationship because, often the reader is emotionally vulnerable and at a crossroads of major life choices. Obviously, not even the most sensitive of writers can anticipate each and every reaction on the part of the reader and provide a completely comprehensive picture, but as long as the former is committed to avoiding glibly hacked-out panaceas, and attempts to engage with the reader with as much of responsibility, accuracy, integrity and sincerity as is possible in 800-odd words, then the reader-writer interaction can be a mutually satisfactory one.

But, as in any other relationship, the reader too has some work to do. An important first step would be to recognise the fallibility of the writer and not assume that all pronouncements in print are gospel. Engaging in personal research before coming to any life-changing conclusions would be prudent. Equally important is the recognition that not all research reports published in the popular press or the Internet (and there is an astonishing plethora of these in recent times) are conclusive certainties. For instance, when one reads a report of a study which says that people who drink four cups of coffee a day seem to have a lower incidence of depression, it doesn't mean one has to immediately rush to Cafe Coffee Day four times a day, for, it's perfectly possible that people who drink four cups of coffee a day may do so because they have a certain personality or genetic or chemical factor, which is what protects them from depression.

Surprises

Even though readers of ‘non-advice' writing may also make major choices based on what they have read, the relationship they engage in with these writers is based on appreciation, even admiration for the latter's craft or sometimes, dislike, even antipathy for their opinions. Readers are often quite keen on meeting and getting to know their writers at say, book launches or literary festivals. Whether they should meet face-to-face or conduct their relationship only through the medium of the printed word is moot. As an avid reader, I have, on more than one occasion, felt quite disappointed when I actually met a writer I thought highly of. However, the converse is not true, for, as a writer, I am yet to meet a reader whose company I am anxious to avoid. But, even though my readers have always been pleasant to me, I have no idea what they actually feel upon meeting me. Perhaps, it's better that I don't.

Email the writer : vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com