Part One may be found here.
Writer-focused audience theories position the writer center stage in both the writer-audience relationship and in the creative process. Indeed, it is to the writer’s shapely role that most literary critics’ eyes inevitably rove. Furthermore, theorists from Plato on grant the writer (or the poet or the speaker) full or partial guardianship of her audience and in a multitude of ways view audience through the writer’s modus operandi.
But some theorists find such methods of defining audience dissatisfying. They begin their search for the audience’s true nature by stripping off long-held assumptions about its passivity and anonymity, thus permitting the audience its fair share of the spotlight. After all, people reading books and enjoying other kinds of creative productions bring to the works the story of their own lives, hence our high tolerance for “interpretation.”
Pointing out that members of an audience bring a wide spectrum of experience (which, BTW, may exceed or otherwise lie outside of the writer’s own) to a book or performance may appear to be an exercise in the obvious, but what does the fact that they do so mean for the creative process?
In their work on audience theory, Ede and Lunsford propose that understanding what an audience is and does requires recognizing that rhetorical situations are “fluid and dynamic” and that writers’ roles and readers’ roles are interdependent. According to Ede and Lunsford, a reader’s or audience member’s experience inevitably affects the creative process. This is because in the course of any creative process the writer must somehow consider her reader’s presence, acknowledge that the reader may contribute to her meanings (a process that may extend Ong’s ideas about how writers fictionalize their audiences), and make rhetorical choices accordingly. Lying just beneath the surface of the idea that readers contribute to a writer’s meaning lies another interesting idea: In bringing their own experiences to a work readers likewise create narratives for or otherwise fictionalize the writer and her work. What interests me about this implication is that such a view of the audience-writer relationship decentralizes the creative process. Traditionally reserved to the creative writer, the priviledge of fictionalizing or forming narratives becomes a group act where meaning, influence, and responsibility are more generously distributed.
Ong’s ideas about how a writer fictionalizes her audience stops short of acknowledging any creative activity on the audience’s part and to my (admittedly limited) knowledge venture no theory on how an audience might be fictionalizing the writer or her work in return. While not directly addressing questions of audience fictionalization, Ede and Lunsford advocate balancing the writer’s creativity against the “equally important” creativity of the reader. My reading is far from complete on the subject of contemporary theories on the writer-audience relationship, but in my opinion, many authors and critics still hold traditonal views of writer ascendancy and a re-imagining of the truly multi-facetted writer-audience relationship is long overdue. While it may be true upon occasion that a writer runs ahead of her audience to gain new ground in levels of awareness, and while it may be true that at times a writer’s prowess in spinning the straw of experience into the gold of new meaning might earn her the right to lead her audience, I believe that overall writers and theorists underestimate the audience’s creative powers and overlook its contribution to the creative process. After all, it might be just as likely that at times readers’ or audience members’ experiences and/or creative responses surpass the writer’s own, and that such responses might result in new meaning that the writer has not imagined or even cannot imagine.
Of all the writer’s fictionalizations, the one where she consisitently casts herself in starring roles in the eternally grand opening of the creative process while at the same time casting her audience in a wide range of minor supporting roles has proven quite tenacious, and with this tenacity has often come rampant chauvinism on her part. How have traditional beliefs holding the writer as the soul of creativity and as sole craftsman of creative work, and of her audience as merely “taking in” her meanings while experiencing negligible or unimportant creative responses of their own endured so long? Widening the view of the creative process to include the reader or audience member’s partnership — and, at times, companionship — in the act of discovery and in the creation of new meaning alters the balance of creative power. At least in theory, new audience-writer dynamics ought to emerge, including those where audience members’ rejections of the roles a writer projects upon them provokes the writer to ascend new heights of rhetorical, spiritual, and philosophical exploration rather than merely to redouble her persuasive wiles.
While it might be true that any given audience ought to be granted equality in the creative process, it seems equally apparent that some audiences are more equal than others. What happens when audience fictionalizations of the writer and her work get out of hand and audience members turn the traditional roles of the audience and writer around, usurping the throne of chauvinsim formerly reserved for the writer? When an audience rejects the writer’s fictionalization for them and attempts instead to bully her into accepting a role they imagine for her, what options does the writer have to renegotiate her narrative position? Part Three will take up these questions.