This Question of Audience, Part Two

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. 

 

7 thoughts on “This Question of Audience, Part Two”

  1. I have absolutely know idea how this plays out in literature. I wrote a horribly thought-out essay called “Sediment” back in grad school about what readers bring to the reading experience, but after rediscovering it a couple of months ago, I realized that I had no idea what I was talking about.

    I think that the more interesting relationship between authors and audience is in television and film. Writers now (for good and ill) are exposed to a lot of feedback about characters, story lines etc. This is especially the case with television series.

    I don’t know of any instances where writers have made huge changes to plot lines as the result of audience feedback (most of it via the Internet, of course), but I have read several interviews where writers have said that reaction caused them to discuss things.

    And there have been several instances where the writers have written shout outs and nods to their fanbase into a show.

    Here’s an interesting example of a writer talking about the audience reaction to a story line on the television show Gilmore Girls:

    “And even in our writers’ room we had a lot of heated discussions about whether that’s going to hurt the character and all that stuff, but Amy and I felt like that’s where she would go, that’s where her heart would go, that’s her own flaw, because it wasn’t the right thing to do. And we followed through on that flaw.”

  2. Good thoughts, Patricia.

    i think your ideas are being reified in the blogosphere. As I’ve read blogs and attempted to write my own, I’ve noticed that, in many ways, the author is nowhere near as important as the audience.

    For example I’ve read a few blog posts that were mediocre writing at best, and did little actual thinking. I could tell that during the process of composing the post, the writer didn’t push any new boundaries or agonize over just where to place that word. But then the comments start coming back, “What a great post,” “beautifully written,” “you should get a prize for best blog post of the year.” And then the respondents go off on their own thoughts on the subject.

    I figure that what the audience is really responding to are the ideas and impressions that crop up in their own heads while reading the post. Then they attribute the interesting thoughts they had to the prowess of the original writer.

    And then, often, the comments become much more interesting than the post that started it all.

    The audience is definintely in control in the blogosphere.

    I wonder if Ong and the others you have cited are aware of the dynamics of blogs?

    However, I have to admit that I’m skeptical about the audience doing much besides buying writing when it comes to paper publication. I’ve only done a smidge of paper publication and I can say that for the most part, if I had an audience, they have been silent.

    Writing for paper publication is a completely different prospect than writing for blogs is. If you haven’t gone through a change while you’ve written, if you haven’t agonized over where to put that word, if your work hasn’t been disarticulated at the hands of an editor, you haven’t written anything worth the work of publishing. I think that is a very personal matter and very much in the hands of the author.

  3. Gee whiz, sorry to be out of touch for so long. Our home phone lines out here in the backrocks are non-functional and we’ve not been able to receive messages from the world via phone or internet for three days. This isn’t the first time. Kinda nice in a way, but we’re thinking about digging up the clams for satellite.

    But now here I am, using a computer at work, which makes me feel like some kind of skate or … or … gosh, like one of those blogging lawyers or something. I don’t want to think about it.

    William said: “I think that the more interesting relationship between authors and audience is in television and film. Writers now (for good and ill) are exposed to a lot of feedback about characters, story lines etc. This is especially the case with television series.”

    Me: Yes, that’s interesting, but because we can see the effects of audience interaction in some media doesn’t mean it isn’t there in others. Many creative reactions are not documented in expected ways.

    William: “I don’t know of any instances where writers have made huge changes to plot lines as the result of audience feedback (most of it via the Internet, of course), but I have read several interviews where writers have said that reaction caused them to discuss things.

    And there have been several instances where the writers have written shout outs and nods to their fanbase into a show.”

    Me: I’m certain many writers maintain blogs where they interact more closely with their readers with similar results. At times, writers might not be fully conscious of the effects such interactions might have on their creative process. But I’m not just talking about the kind of creative outbreaks where audience response affects the writer’s creative product, I’m talking about the whole creative gestalt that involves writer and audience members the way a metaphor yokes two seemingly separate and possibly unlike things in order to create the surprise of new meaning, something that’s bigger than its parts. New meaning is something that arises, probably more often that not, in undocumented spaces. Writers show up at the visible tip of that iceberg and often claim responsibility for the whole thing, or else they have credit for it thrust upon them.

  4. Stephen said: “However, I have to admit that I’m skeptical about the audience doing much besides buying writing when it comes to paper publication. I’ve only done a smidge of paper publication and I can say that for the most part, if I had an audience, they have been silent.

    Writing for paper publication is a completely different prospect than writing for blogs is. If you haven’t gone through a change while you’ve written, if you haven’t agonized over where to put that word, if your work hasn’t been disarticulated at the hands of an editor, you haven’t written anything worth the work of publishing. I think that is a very personal matter and very much in the hands of the author.

    ME: You guys and your “if I can’t see it, it isn’t there” logic.

    I was going to get to this in a following post, but since it has come up now, here’s my opinion on what blogs show us about audience:
    Blogs reveal a higher percentage of an audience’s creativy, a creativity that has always been there. It’s just that blogs etc. have opened up a window onto that aspect of writer-audience relationship. I think I made this point somewhere else, can’t remember where, possibly in a comment to you, Stephen, that a high percentage of blog readers don’t respond directly to the post. Do we assume then that because they don’t document their response that means they had none? I think that it’s reasonable to suggest that a fair percentage of the invisible audience members experience some kind of creative response or respond with burst of creativity of some sort. And clearly audience silence, as you have perceived it, has had an effect on you and your writing. It has effects on me, just not the same effects.

    Here’s an interesting example that happened to me just yesterday. I read one and a half very exciting and stimulating chapers of Shannon Hale’s _Goose Girl_ aloud to my 9-yr-old daughter. Afterwards, I had powerful urges to get up and fix my family dinner (food played an important role in these pages). My daughter followed me out to the kitchen and began pacing up and down. She told me a dream she had had the night before and as she got into and out of chairs and paced the carpet on the other side of the kitchen counter she began to spin a remarkable tale out of that dream, which involved a professor sending people out into the wilderness. He gave the people a choice: they could go out into the forest or the desert. Our family was in the dream and we chose to go to the desert. On and on this tale went, augmenting the dream until whole clans and skills levels and building materials and customs sprang forth.

    I see a direct relationship between my wanting to create a meal for my family, my daughter’s creative outburst, and the experience of reading together those passages from _Goose Girl_.

    As for this part of your comment: “If you haven’t gone through a change while you’ve written, if you haven’t agonized over where to put that word, if your work hasn’t been disarticulated at the hands of an editor, you haven’t written anything worth the work of publishing. I think that is a very personal matter and very much in the hands of the author.”

    I have had this pleasure, but I don’t come to the same conclusions about it as you have. We may not hear, or read, or in any other way perceive obvious responses to our writing, in the case of published paper writing because the curtain is just beginning to rise on the audience and the lights are only now being turned up. Blogs, etc., are revealing aspects of audience that have always been. Furthermore, audience creativity affects writers in ways writers may not fully be conscious of. But here’s how it affects me: the fact that I’m sending my words out in the world, beyond my sight and beyond my time, where they might facilitate the creation of new experiences I might never be aware of or ultimately have any control over, causes me to write in a state of high faith. Your ideas about writing form your narrative pathways. The agony isn’t as private as you think–in fact, it’s probably something more like archetypal. Meaning gets beyond us and it gets us beyond ourselves. So cool, so cool. By heaven, I like that.

  5. BTW, speaking of television programs, did anybody else see Donny Osmond’s cameo appearance on the daytime drama All My Children? Rather funny. Playing himself, he asked one of the show’s main characters, a woman who has engaged in serial marriage (ten or eleven of them), where all her husbands were, or something like that. IMO, a funny turnabout.

  6. I write a column for our local paper and my tone is vastly different than the one I use in blogging. I’m way more careful.

  7. Annegb said, “I write a column for our local paper and my tone is vastly different than the one I use in blogging. I’m way more careful.”

    Anne, are you more careful in your local column because you perceive its audience as being different from your blogging audience, because you see the two media involved as requiring different levels of carefulness, or both?

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