I signed up for a book proposal workshop at the recent Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College. I’ve been working on an idea for a couple of years now. I thought I was “this close” (fingers pinched closely together) to delivering a little piece of me to agents and editors. The workshop would be a final bit of encouragement.
After the two-hour session, though, I realized I am “this far” (hands stretched widely apart) from not just submitting a proposal but actually writing it. I wasn’t worried about sample chapters, and I’ve been doing research on other books covering the same topics. I even have a short list of potential agents and editors to contact. I’m stuck on the one section of the proposal that I don’t have an answer to. Audience.
I have no idea who I am writing for.
“Your kind of writer has never spoken to a large audience except over a long stretch of time, and I would not advise you to pin too much hope even on posterity,” wrote the great writer of the American West, Wallace Stegner, in a November 1, 1959, Atlantic Monthly essay, “To a Young Writer.”
Stegner wrote the letter responding to a former student, answering the “practical matters” about which the student wrote, and addressing the student’s apparent purpose, “a need for reassurance.”
While Stegner had no trouble affirming to the writer that “you indeed are good,” his greater goal seems to be a warning. To Stegner, pursuing an audience and the rewards of authorship—security, fame, confidence, and so many others—threatens the writing.
“The moment you start consciously writing for an audience you begin wondering if you are saying what the audience wants or expects,” Stegner says. He distinguishes between the solitary reader, who sits alone relishing the words, and an audience, operating en masse and demanding things like “sensationalism, violence, shock, sentiment, sex, or Great Issues.”
A mass audience may eschew writing that doesn’t satisfy its desires, bypassing some work in favor of others. Not the solitary reader: “the peculiar virtue of this audience is that it leaves up to you what should be said,” Stegner writes.
“Except for vaguely imagining him and hoping he is there, ignore [the reader], do not write what you think he would like. Write what you like,” Stegner implores.
“When your book is published you will have a letter from at least one of him, perhaps from as many as twenty or thirty of him. With luck, as other books come on his numbers will grow. But to you he will always be a solitary reader, an ear, not an audience.”
But who is this solitary reader for whom we write? Do we owe him nothing more than being true to ourselves?
At another Festival session, a panel of writers, editors, publishers, and agents talked about the current state of the publishing industry. One of the panel members strongly appealed to the audience to buy books and review the work of other authors for the good of the entire word industry. Another panel member, an editor and poet, suggested that every audience member should subscribe to a literary journal. The other panel members agreed.
Later, an audience member responded by asking whether this type of thinking created a kind of inbred system where writers write only for themselves.
Their answer amounted to a firm maybe. The panel members were resigned to the idea that if writers don’t buy published or printed works, if they don’t commit their own money to books and journals and magazines, how could they expect anyone else to?
I left the session wondering: is that who I write for? Myself? Not just me, in a self-revelatory, self-discovery kind of way, but me over and over again in all the ways that people like me — writers — are in fact just like me?
Later that day, I attended an interview with popular Christian blogger and author Rachel Held Evans. Responding to a question about audience, she described her readers as her “boss,” a great departure from the earlier session’s question of inbreeding. While she certainly is not employed by the thousands of book buyers who propelled The Year of Biblical Womanhood to the New York Times Best Seller List in November 2012, neither was she pandering to her fan base when she made the comment. She explained that she often crowdsources ideas on her blog or social media pages as she is writing, and in The Year of Biblical Womanhood, she adjusted content based on comments and suggestions.
While these are not “choose your own adventure” books, Evans definitely has gone against Stegner’s advice and is “consciously writing for an audience.” But Stegner’s “young writer” was not a “popular blogger.” We learn in the letter that this serious wordsmith wrote fiction, what we might now label “literary fiction,” not trade paperbacks for the Christian Living section at Barnes and Noble. But in the interview, Evans said she, too, would like to be considered a “literary” writer, though she shrugged off suggestions that she currently is.
If such a writer is being true to herself and her readers, would Stegner protest?
Writers of all genres and subjects seem to wonder “who are we writing for?” And indirectly, what does my audience say about me as a writer?
In a recent Curator interview with Image Journal founder and editor Greg Wolfe, Brett Beasley asks how a journal with lofty literary ambition became sustainable in the marketplace. Are they writing for enough people to remain financially viable?
“We have gone on faith that the artistic languages we speak—and those spoken in the journal—continue to have relevance,” Wolfe said.
“Even when they’re competing in a marketplace with languages that are much more easily spoken and often seem more enjoyable and consumable than long short stories, complicated, multifaceted essays, or layered, nuanced paintings full of allusions and historical references. So, we’ve always braced ourselves for accusations of elitism. But that’s always been the case with high art.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who lob the label of elitism because they themselves feel excluded: genre writers who feel they’ve been banished for writing to too low or too large an audience.
In a 2008 blog post titled “The Literary Ghetto”, horror writer Gary A. Braunbeck tells the story of a book reviewer who seemed surprised that a work of horror fiction was actually “serious” and “literate.”
“I have seen countless instances of others—readers and reviewers alike—who dismiss science fiction, mysteries, and fantasy on the same grounds: that genre fiction is somehow not ‘real’ literature,” Braunbeck writes. “And so writers and readers of genre fiction get shoved off into their own literary ghetto, where ‘discerning’ readers of lit-rah-chure deign not tread.”
The question becomes even more difficult when the audience is not just someone who buys books, but anyone anywhere who may stumble onto a website. Science blogger Emily Anthes, in her PLOS post, “As Science Bloggers, Who Are We Really Writing For?” writes,
“How much are we really sparking a wider discussion about science in society and how much are we just talking to each other? I know that I’m thrilled when science bloggers that I respect notice my work, compliment it, and retweet it. And it’s exciting to watch science bloggers debate the finer points of science with one another. But who are we really writing for? Is it just for each other? Are the debates we’re having really reaching a wider audience?
In asking who we are writing for, we often come back around to asking why are we writing in the first place. Why would we even want an audience? When it comes to identifying our solitary reader, perhaps why is the better question.
“Why bother to make contact with kindred spirits you never see and may never hear from, who perhaps do not even exist except in your hopes?” Stegner asks the young writer. “Why spend ten years in an apprenticeship to fiction only to discover that this society so little values what you do that it won’t pay you a living wage for it?”
His answer propels us past the target audience of a book proposal, beyond the accusations of elitism or ghetto writing, even further than the reader as boss.
“You have nothing to gain and nothing to give except as you distill and purify ephemeral experience into quiet, searching, touching little stories like the one you have just finished,” Stegner writes. “And so give your uncommon readers a chance to join you in the solidarity of pain and love and the vision of human possibility.”
My proposal is tabled for now, and so is the matter of audience. I am content to sit with why? When I find the answer, or even a hint of an answer, I have a feeling the book proposal will follow close behind.