Monday, September 6, 2010

Who are we writing for?

Last week, a good discussion almost broke out in my graduate seminar (it would have, if we weren't already deep in another one) when a student used the word "elitist" to describe a novel's frame of reference. The book, he felt, was too insular--the product of intellectual squirreliness, an egghead speaking in code to the ivory tower.

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!


christianbauman said...

1. Why am I doing this? Because I can't seem to stop. It seems to be how my brain is wired...I think in narrative and word blocks, and words blocks turn into word play, and before you know it there is a sentence or stanza or something. I could leave it like that, I guess, and just go through life with these little pebbles of word groupings dropping behind me as if from a couple of awkward holes in a couple of awkward pockets. But unfortunately another way I'm wired is that I like things tidy and organized and don't care for loose ends, so inevitably I discover that some of those longer word blocks or stanzas or what have you seem to be related and then I need to make them related and so then I begin relating them, and three days later I have a song or three months later I have an essay or three years later I have a novel.

2. Who is it for? Yes, John, as with you: this has changed over time. Happily, the older I get, the more and more it seems pretty clear that usually it's for me. But hardly the case for most of my life, and not always the case now. The two main projects I'm working on now (a novel, and a YA novel) are both for other people as much as they are for me. Anyway, though, one thing for sure (and perhaps a cautionary thought for your young students, JRL): the less and less I have written for critics or other faceless literatzi, the better my writing has become.

Anonymous said...

Christian, love that answer to 1), very nerdy and true to my experience, too. You just have to DO something with that stuff.

I have never heard "literazi" before but am suddenly very fond of it.

christianbauman said...

Yeah, it's like for my whole life, these little collections of words keep piling up at my feet, and I have to pick them up and put them somewhere or I'll trip over them. I know you know what I mean.

Love the button your son found, btw. Priceless.

Sasha said...

I write because I can't seem to grow out of playing pretend.

To be honest, it's only for myself. I'd be happy if nobody ever read any of it, ever. Happy but forever broke. Hence sending it to lots of people.

rmellis said...

I'm in a weird position right now -- writing for a very particular audience, which is some guys at a prison. (A friend teaches a writing class at a prison, and I'm supposed to bring and discuss one of my stories.) I don't know these guys at all, but I keep imagining their reaction to everything, which makes it nearly impossible to write. I have to say, not knowing your audience -- the usual state -- is vastly preferable.

Sheila said...

That's a more interesting dilemma, Rhian, than the one that often stymies me: what if my parents ever read this?!

Thanh Le said...

Hey John, I'm so glad you put this up on your blog. During these last few months after graduation, I've been asking myself that same question and spiraling even more so into confusion. Just a few hours ago I made the conclusion that I write because I have so many voices and characters in my head that they need a way out or they drive me nuts. As for, Who's it for? Well, I used to try to attribute it to more noble causes, like connecting with people or trying to get certain messages out, but as of present, keeping my sanity is what it does, and I'm coming to realize that that's enough. Also, picking what I write and directing it to a specific audience has rarely ever worked and when I try, it ends up sounding contrived. I'm over the writer's block hump and ready to get back into writing.

Anonymous said...

Glad to hear it, Thanh! I've told you this before (and I suspect I will tell you it again), but you gotta write what you feel compelled to write, and let the force of your personality render it important to readers. Rhian is going to post (I think) about this new Franzen novel soon, but we have been talking around the house about how much he depends on his own writing aesthetic to make fairly neutral dramatic material seem totally fascinating. He trusts BEING FRANZEN when a lot of writers would not trust themselves to be interesting. The book isn't perfect, but his writing is always compelling, in part because of this confidence.

Thanh Le said...

Hey John, I will try to repeat it to myself a few times as a sort of mantra of comfort, but I also suspect that I will still need reminding from you in the future. I look forward to hearing the post about Franzen's new novel. I'll let you know if any interesting writing comes up with BEING THANH on the page, at least, if I can render it effectively.

Sung said...

I think I ask these questions to myself every single day...

Q. Why am I doing this?
A. Because I haven't found anything better to do with my life. Because it's something I can do anytime, anywhere. Because it's something I can do even when I'm old and slow and gray.

Q. Who is it for?
A. Some reader somewhere. Which includes me. As I get older and time seems to be running at an accelerated pace (I can't believe it's already September...), I realize more than ever that nothing I do will actually matter. So really, I should just do what I enjoy, which happens to be writing. When it's going well. When it's not, then it's just hell.

jon said...

It's funny that you mention Franzen in this context. I thought his response to being picked by Oprah was shameful, and it made me not want to read The Corrections, even though I loved 27th City and liked Strong Motion. When he whined and wrung his hands in public about the whole thing, saying he was told by his readers that they would never read a book with Oprah's Picks on the cover, I thought of Robert Morgan. Morgan also had a novel picked by Oprah, but he was thrilled. I heard him on NPR. He could never have expected a readership the Oprah stamp would bring, and as a poet and writer of literary short stories, used to non-remunerative obscurity, it was a boon he appreciated. He was grateful for whatever audience would like and buy his books.
I know I write because I have something to say to others, and that those others are the ones who want to hear it. But that can be anyone at all. of course, i also write because I can't stop. Not writing is as wounding as not being read; acvtually, it's much more wounding. So it goes on.

Anonymous said...

I literally was just talking to Robert Morgan in the doorway of my office 30 seconds ago. Bizarre.

Yeah, there was indeed something rather clueless about Franzen's famous comments--though I was, and remain, a fan of his, Corrections included. This new book I don't like quite so much, and Strong Motion remains my favorite.

jon said...

I'm interested in what you and Rhian will have to say about his new book. I know it's wrong to let extra-literary matters warp my judgement, but it's hard not to scoff when I read critics, or reviewers rather, who compare him to Tolstoy.

Matt said...

1) Why are we doing this? As someone may have mentioned, I think this question gets more refined with age/experience. Ultimately, however, its personal (perhaps bordering on spiritual) and unique to the "do-er".

2) Who is it for? I can only refer to author Wayson Choy - perhaps one of the most inspirational speakers on the subject of writing - who talked to us one day about the "ideal reader". In a nutshell, the "ideal reader" is someone not unlike yourself, but who understands you better than a stranger, who expects you to write better, think better about what you're creating. To not cheat. To not cut corners. To ultimately be as honest with yourself and other readers as possible.

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