He has a point, and so we're going to throw this topic on the floor in the coming week's class: why are we doing this? And who is it for? I have a ready answer for the second question, which I sent to the students as part of a little epistolary manifesto (manifistle?) which I hope will serve as a jumping-off point for class:
We are writing for other smart people. Now, it may be that the vast majority of these smart people are, in fact, formally educated. But I know from experience that many, many of them aren't. The people I meet on book tours and at university readings continue to surprise me. They are all over the map.
However, the thing is, I don't give a rat's ass. The reason is that I don't consider one "class" of reader to be of greater value than any other. Nor do I value one kind of human experience over another. The suffering of a university dean is no less real than the suffering of a starving child thousands of miles from here. The latter may suffer more, but his suffering is not more legitimate as a human experience. The pleasure of a cold beer on a summer afternoon is not more legitimate than the pleasure of solving a tricky equation. A good writer can communicate all kinds of human experience to all kinds of people--should be able to show an intelligent but uneducated reader what it feels like to solve that equation, to be that dean.
The trouble with thinking about audience is that literary writers are usually wrong about who their audience is. Or, as Rhian put it to me, channeling a mentor of hers, "It's none of our goddam business."
As for the first question, I think I know less now about why I write than I did when I started. Because I can't stop? Because I need it to feel alive? Because I want people to love me? (If all I wanted was to be loved, I could have picked a more lovable genre, I suppose.) The one thing I do know is that it's dangerous to connect the first question to the second. To assume you know who you're writing is for, and to write it for them. Because before you know it you're writing down to them. If you need to feel you have a specific audience, do what one writer once told me to do if I was nervous at a reading: pick somebody at random from the audience and read the whole thing to them. My random audience members are Rhian and Skoog, still today. Will this amuse them? Move them? Occasionally I have written something, shown it to one of the two, then shelved it. And that was enough for me.
Anyway, the questions of purpose and audience always get tangled up in discussions of class and privilege. That's as it should be. A novel, say, can't contain the whole universe: you need to assume your reader knows certain things. And so it is inherently for insiders. With every word you choose, you choose to include or eliminate somebody from the people who will "get it."
Can we know who we're including and who we're not? Not really. But we can go into our work with honesty and openness and do our best to be inclusive without alienating the already initiated. For my part, I try to err on the side of inclusion: when push comes to shove, the initiated can suck it.
But readers, I find, will give you more space than you think. They'll forgive you for explaining too much, or for talking over your head, if you give them a way to feel comfortable and interested. A compelling voice. Moral complexity. Good characters.
As for my seminar, well...this is quite the can of worms. If you don't hear from my students and me after Wednesday, know that we sacrificed ourselves for a good cause.
Photo: our son found that button on the street!