In this paper, which was later expanded and published in PMLA and became the most widely-read article in Ongís body of work, Ong examines various aspects of a key difference between forms of communication:  the spoken word exists in an actual present, but the written word almost never does.

The act of writing requires a certain withdrawal.  A writer working on a book that may be read by thousands of people is usually alone.  But she or he is imagining an audience, Ong says.  That is one sense in which a writerís audience is always a construct.  The other is that readers must ficitionalize themselves to meet the writerís projection of them.  Ong traces how such "fictionalizing" has accompanied the development of literary genres.  Written narrative was originally a transcription of a real or imagined oral narrative and assumed a singerís or storytellerís audience even when being read, for example.  Composition in writing changed that, although as late as the nineteenth century, lingering "dear reader" invocations indicated "the writerís difficulty in feeling himself as other than storyteller."

Hemingwayís "casting" of the reader as a "boon companion," sharing the authorís perceptions and feelings illustrates a further evolution in readersí roles, Ong states.  Prior to the Romantic movement, it was the readerís familiarity with public knowledge that was assumed.  Virgilís narrator described hardships that were shared by Aeneas and Aeneasí men.  Later, Chaucerís "frame" story encouraged readers to see themselves on a pilgrimage, a leap assisted by Chaucerís presence as the narrator amond the fictional pilgrims.

Invention of readers is not limited to fiction.  It extends to all writing, from scientific monographs to diary entries, Ong says.  He situates the root of this contriving in the "mask" demanded in all human communication, even with oneself.  Lovers try to do without such masks, and oral communication can reduce them somewhat, but masks in written communication are "much less removable."

Terry Morris
University of Dayton
 

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