Thursday, December 2, 2010

Work in Progress: Should Literary Writers Think about Audience?

Now that the rush of Thanksgiving has ceased, I’m back to writing, but—alas!—the only writing that I’ve been doing has been working on our annual Christmas letter (yes, I’m one of those people) and my craft lecture for the winter residency at the MFA program at Converse College.

You wouldn’t think those two forms would have much in common…but you might be wrong. (Or, my mashing them together might be a sign of desperation as I hurriedly try to come up with something to write this morning before heading out to an appointment.)

My craft lecture is about the importance of the writer’s voice, how it’s through voice that work will truly soar and be unique. My Christmas letter is about—well, me and Steve.

What I’ve been thinking about as I work on these two forms is the idea of audience, which is something I don’t think about enough as I write my fiction. But isn’t the thought of “audience” one of the basic premises of any Comp 101 class: who’s the audience for your essay; who will be reading it? In a craft lecture, I must be mindful of the tired students huddled in their seats, about to doze off from the exhaustion and over-stimulation of the residency. In a Christmas letter, I need to be mindful of friends/family who have received a zillion overly-bragging letters and are rolling their eyes as they unfold mine.

So, I add some jokes and personal stories to my discussion of voice; I vary my pacing by reading examples from novels and stories that prove my points simply by their excellent existence; I have a list with numbers to help listeners keep their focus. In my Christmas letter, I go for humor and self-deprecation. I follow a form I’ve imposed upon myself: each year has its own theme. I limit the length and stick to the highlights, and always poke gentle fun at myself.

But when I write fiction, I simply write it. I write what I want, as I want. I edit, of course, and revise, but I confess that I rarely—if ever—catch myself thinking about audience. I mean, I might wonder if my audience will need more explanation on a certain factual matter, for example, but I don’t wonder if there’s an audience will like what I’m writing. I don’t think I write to please others; I write to please myself.

The kind of writing that is written to please others—genre romances, say, or thrillers—gets a bad rap because it’s perceived to be simplistic. Maybe so: those writers are giving the readers what they want, a nice little story with a happy ending. And art is designed NOT to give people what they want. (Read here and here to see Blake Gopnik’s elegant response to the current controversy about the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery withdrawing a video that has angered some Christians; the bit in question shows ants crawling on a crucifix.)

But, really, what about this question of audience in literary work? Should we—can we?—ignore the question of audience altogether? If I’m truly writing to please myself, why do I care if something ends up published or not? How might my writing change if I thought more about audience? Or do I think a great deal about audience and just don’t want to admit it to myself? (Because what does it mean if you think about audience and your work still isn’t published?)

In the end, it’s always back to this: What is the purpose of art?

No answers here, but I can report that my Christmas letter is almost done!


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.