I don't buy into the whole of post modern literary theory, nor into the ultimate conclusions of neo-orthodox theology. Nevertheless, I can't escape at least one important point that I have learned most strongly from those two philosophical beds: reading is an encounter experience and the context in which that encounter takes place can dramatically influence a reader's experience.
There's a specialty food store in Michigan, that my wife's family has introduced me to to the point where we have not only shopped the store but put in some mail-orders. Because of that, we get the catalogs. Like many catalogs shooting for a warm, homespun feel, the pages are fully not only of products but of little story-lets scattered here and about. Most of these stories are about the history of the store, the deliciousness of the food product around which their theme is built, or some quaint Reader Digest-style half-joke-half-moral.
In the most recent catalog there's a story in which the writer talks about a driveway they had, how much of a pain it was to shovel, and how obnoxious the winter therefore was.
And I said, "Um, that's it? What's the point? Nothing happened in that story."
I hate when people say that about a story. I know this catalog isn't literature, and the writing is professional and not craft writing. Still, if it had been on a flash fiction website or printed as a short or on a writer's friend's blog, I would have thought about the story, the way it was told, and the possible layers of meaning behind it.
But since it was "just" in a catalog, and because I had certain expectations of what the story would be... I reacted completely unlike myself.
Made me think about a lot of the ways in which context might impact a reader's experience of my own writing: what magazine a short story is published in, what the branding and marketing package of my book establishes, how I present the story to prospective agents or editors, what a reader's own expectations are based on association with the some word in the title, what a reader was told by their friends, how the reader does when reading with a headache, who knows what else. And readers are lay readers, crit partners, agents, editors, whoever is reading your story and making a decision or giving you comment or telling others about your work. They're all susceptible to context.
It's one thing to tell a good story.
It's another thing altogether for people to receive it as the good story you meant to tell.
I needa go reread that guy's story about the driveway now.