Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Who Are You Writing For?

When I was a junior or senior in college I went to my writing teacher, Diane Vreuls, with a major dilemma. I had written some stories I liked and was thinking of sending them around to magazines. But, I told her, if they were published in these literary magazines, who would read them? College professors? People with with degrees in literature, MFA students? People in Manhattan apartments sipping cognac, whatever that was?

I wasn't writing for them! Those weren't my people! My people were small town people, rural people, people who bought their underwear in six-packs from the Dollar Bazaar, people who went to the Chinese Buffet still wearing their snowmobile suits. I'd never been to New York, didn't know anyone with an MFA -- what in the world could I ever say to that kind of reader?

Diane (the kindliest person in the world, incidentally, six feet tall with her white hair in a bun and the intensest blue eyes behind big glasses) told me something along the lines of this:

You have no idea how big the world is, little girl. You have no idea who your readers will be. There are people reading literary magazines in laundromats in South Dakota. There are homeless folks in libraries reading everything they can find. There are southern housewives who stop at the bookstore after teaching Sunday school. You never know, and it's not even your business. You're writing for people like you, and if you're going to be a writer, you must believe there are people out there who are like you in some essential way, whether they're sipping cognac or riding a snowmobile.

That was pretty much exactly the thing I needed to hear -- it busted me out of my reverse-classist snobbery in a big way.

Years later, having gone through MFA school and done a little teaching myself, I published a novel. It got some nice reviews but certainly didn't make a big splash in the literary world or anything. It went quietly out of print. Then... I started getting emails from people who had found my book at the dollar store and wanted to tell me that they enjoyed it. I was thrilled, of course -- beyond thrilled.

What am I trying to say? I guess that the ideas that writers choose their audience, that they write for "the ivory tower" or for "the common man" or whatever is just false. I mean, you can direct your writing at whoever you like, but you don't get to pick who reads it. Readers get to pick. I love that.

12 comments:

Gloria said...

That is both a lovely and a sobering thought, especially when trying to decide whether to write memoir versus fiction. I don't like the idea of just anyone reading my most private inner thoughts about my life, which makes me, I have realized, a poor candidate for memoir. But my fiction? I feel safe having anyone read it, even though at some level all fiction is a type of memoir, though fabricated. I just wrote about fabricated holocaust memoirs today in my new blog, so this is something I've been pondering.

Chicklit said...

Well said. Over the course of my MFA we got an awful lot of opinions about who we were writing for. My favorite came from an author who said that when he started to question his audience he would stand up and look at his empty office to confirm that he had no audience. He put it much more eloquently, of course. I tend to agree. No matter what "type" of writing you are doing, you should be writing for yourself. After that, it's in the hands of the reader.

rodger said...

Oh yeah. Forget the fools who want to write for "the world"; there IS no "world". It's your inner voice, and the object is to express that. I'm still working on my MFA but I have no expectations (or DESIRES) to reach out to "the world"; just expressing the inner-most self that is me is MORE than enough, I assure you.

rmellis said...

I do think the reader is important -- it's all about the reader -- but the crazy paradox is the more you try to please that imaginary guy, the faker you get.

Gloria -- I think the dangers of memoir are very different from the dangers of fiction. In memoir, the criticism and snark addresses *you,* whereas with fiction there is a little distance. I don't think I'll ever write memoir, and only partly because of my boring life.

jrlennon said...

Rodger, is that sarcasm? It's hard to tell. Obviously we're all writing to "the world"--we just don't get to choose what that world actually is. The only choice we have is to express what's important to us, and so that's probably where we ought to concentrate our efforts. Do what's important to you alone, and hope that some of the world goes along with you. Integrity is often more appealing than pandering.

Anonymous said...

The only fan mail I've ever received was after I published my first story in The Georgia Review. It was a letter from a guy who said he'd read my story, that he worked for a carnival, and he would be coming through my town in the winter. Maybe we could meet and have coffee?
You never know who your work will reach.

Anonymous said...

Sorry off topic again, but here's a follow up to that article on Dmitri Nabokov and his father's unfinished novel. There's a ghost involved! http://www.slate.com/id/2185222/pagenum/all/

bookfraud said...

what a lovely post. thank you for a necessary corrective to common perception that writers write for other writers. especially in literary journals.

the advice about readers that has stuck with me is "write for yourself; edit for readers." which makes sense if one actually does it.

interesting, too, who reads blogs.

bart said...

You write for whatever is the general audience of your publication.

Those literary magazines are a very rare sight in laundromats in South Dakota, or in any laundromat anywhere. That's not the regular audience of such a magazine, it's a rare case of happenstance and serendipity.

Also, those small town rural Dollar Store people, you think these magazines would be interested in their work? Not on your life, they exist to promote each other.

rmellis said...

Bart, you'd be nuts to try and write for a particular literary magazine -- or even for a lit mag in general. They don't pay enough for the effort!

You're wrong about lit mags not publishing the work of dollar store customers. Every writer I know shops there -- when you earn your living by writing, every buck counts...

bart said...

rhian that is too funny! you have a good point. i'm one of them, a dollar store person myself!

David Rochester said...

Once our work leaves our minds and our hearts, it's no longer ours,and it's not up to us to choose who reads it, or who needs it. It's set loose in the world,and it's as presumptuous to say where it should go as it would be to dictate who is worthy to appreciate our company as human beings.