This Question of Audience, Part Three

Part Two may be found here

When a writer presumes an audience for her work based upon whom she believes readers of similar works to be, she fictionalizes her audience, integrating them into her imaginative effort.  When readers imagine a writer’s life based upon what they understand her work to mean, they fictionalize her right back.  Furthermore, in the process of bringing their own stories — the narratives of their lives — to a novel, poem, etc., readers make of the writer’s work what they will, fictionalizing the work as well as its author.  As long as everyone — writer and audience members alike — accept the fictitious roles each thrusts upon the other, the narratives flow like beer at frat parties and everyone has a good time.

There’s more to it than that, of course.  Good stories do more than merely entertain, inebriate, or provide escape from the ordinary.  I keep saying this, but it’s true: Language does things to and for us.  The human capacity for narratizing experience changes us individually; in many cases, it changes the world.

But sometimes one or more parties in the writer-audience relationship reject the fictitious roles each projects onto the other.  For instance, whatever the original context might have been, the Christianity Today interview with Richard Dutcher is filled with statements geared toward rejecting projected roles.  The first lines of the interview contain a mild rejection of the role audience members have thrust upon the filmmaker: “Richard Dutcher is a Mormon filmaker.  But please don’t call him that.”  These lines from Dutcher reveal his fictionalization of his (former?) audience: “Word’s gotten out that my films are a little edgier than the others, and have a little more depth and are actually about something.  And I think the Mormon community just doesn’t have reverence or respect for art.  It certainly doesn’t understand film as an art form.”  During the AML-List discussion of this interview, several respondents rejected or otherwise distanced themselves from the fictitious roles of shallow, unsophisticated, and/or unappreciative audience members they feel Dutcher projected onto them, creating new ones for him in the process.

In Part Two of this series, I said that, traditionally, we’ve granted the writer ascendancy in the writer-audience relationship and that has at times resulted in chauvinism on the writer’s part.  By chauvinism, I mean that the artist believes herself superior to her audience and acts with lack of regard for audience creativity or as if she had no responsibility to meet her audience on meaningful ground.  Chauvinistic writers batter audiences with language, bullying them via destructive plotlines or angry or unfathomable diction.  They proclaim themselves keepers of the creative flame and reserve to themselves full rights to experimenting with truth.  Chauvinistic writers might not realize they are being chauvinistic or care — a blindness innate in chauvinism.  Whatever grand ideas about the nature of art and of truth they claim to hold, ultimately such writers’ reasons for writing are rooted in their desire to keep their worldviews intact.  Which, ironically enough, often falls out as their chief criticism of unappreciative audiences.

Readers reject roles writers project onto them simply by refusing to join the audiences for particular writers’ works.  For instance, readers have told me, an occasional mystery writer, that mystery or suspense is just not their “thing.”  I don’t like slasher/monster fictions — much — and avoid looking at those sections in book or video stores because even the covers of books and movies, once seen, provoke fictionalization in the mind of the beholder, and I have a low terror threshhold.

So in the national book market, it appears that readers simply don’t join audiences for fictions they want no part of.  But sometimes the audience subverts the traditional power structure of the writer-audience relationship and, assuming authority formerly reserved only to the most tyrannical writers, rejects a writer soundly, denying her creativity in ways similar to those whereby writers deny audience creativity.  I don’t know how often this happens in the national market, but I know that in the smaller Mormon lit market readers do at times assert creative control, and when they do so, it makes a respectable splash.

I know of LDS authors who, at reader outcry, have been forced to remove “offensive” scenes from their novels or had their work returned to booksellers and publishers with strong reader reprimands.  In the national book market, such readers voluntarily eliminate themselves from audiences for fictions they wish to avoid; only in their “home” market do they become activists.  Probably activist-readers have many reasons for behaving differently in the “home” market from how they behave in the national one.  But among the reasons they leap to action on home turf roams the same one chauvinistic writers have for harassing or rebuking their audiences: Whatever ideas about the natures of art and truth they hold, audience members assert creative control out of a powerful drive to preserve their worldviews.

IMO, any Mormon writer writing for the “home” market ought to respect boundaries the reading segment of the community has set.  Granted: Literature whose purpose is to launch frontal attack upon Mormonism exists, but Mormon publishers like Deseret Book, etc., don’t publish such work, and many readers of DB etc. products aren’t trolling for fights.  In fact, they buy such products because they believe they won’t have to fight, because in their fictionalizations of proper Mormon writers and appropriate home markets they imagine that there, at least, the stories of their lives — which include their ideals — are safe.  Whether or not such a belief is rational or realistic or honest is beside the point.  It is a compelling enough fiction that when faced with Mormon readers’ rejections of minor scenes where, for instance, a teenager prances around sans clothing or a troubled priesthood holder honestly faces temptation, Mormon booksellers and publishers will choose the readers’ fictionalization over the writer’s as the more profitable (safer) of two conflicting fictions.

Is this right or wrong?  Well, like many choices we make, it’s both right and wrong.  The question is, what’s a Mormon writer to do?

One obvious solution: If a writer writes a story containing parts that lie outside of the acceptable range of mainstream Mormon fictionalizations, she should take it to the national market, which accomodates a broader spectrum of acceptable fictions.  Sometimes a Mormon writer whose work might have met with disapproval if they had first published it in the smaller Mormon market will find greater acceptance at home once they have achieved success in the wider market.

Publishing with smaller, off-the-beaten-track, Mormon-market-oriented presses like Signature Books, the up-and-running Zarahemla Books, or university presses, will automatically eliminate “undesireable” audience members.  However, a writer choosing this path might find her story tossed automatically onto mainstream readers’ slush piles of undesireable fictions, whether or not the work contains objectionable material.  Regardless, these markets will grow. 

Many Mormon writers who feel strongly about publishing in the “home” market have no trouble producing work that falls within the range of acceptable fictions.  Like the Mormon readers who seek publishing safe houses, such writers don’t especially want to have to fight to preserve their narratives, especially their narratives of the ideal.  In fact, writers of safe house fictions create out of a desire to bolster the truths they love.  Readers of safe house fictions read them in search of supportive stories — stories that augment their worldview and shed friendly light upon it.

IMO, Mormon writers who feel strongly about writing for their home market, and who, like Dutcher, aspire to writing “edgier” stories, ought not to expect safe houses to empty of residents as they flood theaters and rush bookstores to acquire “riskier” stories.  Nor should they expect them to rush to stories that, while they support overall the preferred safe house fictions, contain edgier moments.  Such edgy moments might be the kinds of moments that caused people to take to safe houses in the first place.  Either aim for the smaller, edgy-material-friendly, Mormon-themed publishing houses or go for national markets with broader arrays of acceptable narratives.  Interested readers will find them either place. 

Or, where the stories you love differ radically from those usually esteemed by the folks to whom you wish to tell them, tell them in ways that make it possible for others to love what you love — tell your stories with generosity of tone, allowing for audience creativity and agency at many levels.  The writer who considers members of her audience to be no better than rough drafts in desperate need of revision with no meaningful stories of their own falls to chauvinism and brings her own narratives up short.  Furthermore, in the grand schemes of creation, truth, and human progression, no story ought to imagine itself to be above revision.

8 thoughts on “This Question of Audience, Part Three”

  1. Great article, Patricia. You’ve framed the issue well, and artists and authors should read this to better understand their readers.

    A couple comments:

    1. There are limits to audience size. Some audiences are just too small to reach “profitably” or given the amount of effort involved. Traditionally, publishers shy away from works that won’t sell at least 1,000 copies or so. And while newer technologies make smaller numbers possible and profitable, there are limits. Authors generally don’t write much for audiences of one. (I can believe an author creating a short story just for his or her spouse, but a novel stretches credibility).

    Given these limits, I think every author needs to realistically assess what the audience might be for their work. In the Mormon market as it is currently configured, the “edgier” material has a small market. Unfortunately, authors usually overestimate the audience. A realistic assessment helps an author evaluate whether or not writing in one way or another is worth the effort. Or at least change their expectations, so that the author doesn’t become chauvinistic.

    2. You say, in passing, that the market for works from “smaller, off-the-beaten-track, Mormon-market-oriented presses” “will grow.” While my positive nature wants to believe that, I don’t think its a sure thing by any means. We are having a hard enough time growing the Mormon market at all — given the more or less stagnant growth of the Church in Utah and the inability of the market to communicate with buyers and readers outside of Utah.

    To be frank, until the problem of communicating with the audience outside of Utah and the Wasatch Front is solved, I don’t see the growth happening, except perhaps slowly.

  2. Kent said: Given these limits, I think every author needs to realistically assess what the audience might be for their work. In the Mormon market as it is currently configured, the “edgier” material has a small market.

    Me: I think that many beginning writers trying to break into print will find the job of assessing their prospective audiences realistically a huge challenge. (The more experienced writers I’ve known do seem to have settled somewhat into audience grooves.) I guess I imagined agents, editors, and publishers, with their greater experience meeting audience expectations, would pick up the heavier end of this task.

    About the edgier material: I was very impressed with Shannon Hale’s _Goose Girl_, which contains some gritty material that’s probably too emotionally charged or heartbreaking for some juvenile readers. Yet I read the whole thing aloud to my 9-year-old, allowing her to manage those parts of the story as she would. After reading those parts, I knew that no matter how fine the writing or admirable the overall story, it would probably have been too much to expect DB or Covenant or any of the other safe house Mormon publishers to publish a work like that — not without requiring those scenes be cut. Yet I was very grateful they weren’t and that I could experience such moments with my daughter. They are universal moments that make statements about war and human cruelty — and they allowed my kid to begin making choices about important matters if difficult matters while safe beside me there in the beanbag chair.

    Kent: Unfortunately, authors usually overestimate the audience.

    Me: I guess we could include that under ways writers fictionalize their audiences. I would guess that some writers might underestimate the audience, too.

    Kent: You say, in passing, that the market for works from “smaller, off-the-beaten-track, Mormon-market-oriented presses” “will grow.” While my positive nature wants to believe that, I don’t think its a sure thing by any means.

    Me: Of course, Kent, you’d know about this better than I would. But I’m optimistic about this in the same way I’m optimistic about writers of outstanding quality emerging from the metaphoric bowels of the Mormon tradition. Also, I tend to look rather far down the road — 50, 100, 200 years plus (I know that flies in the face of the “last days” kind of thinking popular in the community for the last 175 years, but hey — optimist!). IMO, provided the church has enough umph to last another 100 years or more, which I think it does, the Mormon lit market is more likely to expand than contract or stay the same, not just in numbers but in kind. It’s just my best guess! But no–I don’t have my finger on the throb of the printing presses and so might well be dreaming.

  3. You raise many interesting and valid issues in this article, however, I think it is a basic fallacy to lump novelists, poets, film-makers, etc. into a generic category of “author.” Certainly there exists a relationship between the person who presents and the person who receives, but each medium addresses that relationship in a different way.

    Additionally, there is a third party in this relationship, the muse. As a poet, I do not fully understand the muse, any more than I understand my audience, but the muse is no less a participant than me or my audience.

  4. Scott,


    I agree that each medium addresses the relationship between the writer and his or her audience members differently. What is it you’re telling me, though, about “lumping novelists, poets, filmakers into a generic category of ‘author'”? That you don’t think poets and filmmakers are authors? Or are you saying something else?

    You said: As a poet, I do not fully understand the muse, any more than I understand my audience, but the muse is no less a participant than me or my audience.

    I’m interested in hearing more of what you have to say about the muse.

  5. Regarding the lumping of novelists, poets, filmakers, et. al. into a generic category called “author,” yes, I am saying that they are not authors. A poet is a poet. The poet uses language differently than a novelist or a filmaker. To call a poet an author in my opinion is like calling a dancer a runner because both dancers and runners move their legs to accomplish their goals.

    Regarding the muse, I hope you’ll forgive the length of this comment, but here are my thoughts:

    What is the muse?

    Since I am a poet, I will address this question from the poet’s perspective. I do not know how or if this perspective translates to other creative mediums, or even, more specifically, other language-based mediums.

    The “job” of the poet is to create expressions of ideas through the use of words and groups of words. At their most basic, words have three distinct elements which the poet may utilize: the sound of the word, the meaning of the word, and the place of the word within the poem.

    In composing a poem, the poet creates relationship paths between these three elements. Some of these relationship paths are so common that we give them names. Rhyme, consonance, assonance, and alliteration are words we use to describe specific sound-based relationship paths between words. Metaphor, simile and imagery are examples of meaning-based relationship paths between words and word groups. Meter and stanza denote place-based relationship paths in a poem. If a relationship path exists internally to a word between its sound and meaning, we call that onomatopoeia.

    The number of relationship paths that exist between two single words is 3^2 or 9. For a single line of iambic pentameter, the greatest number of relationship paths that could be defined is 3^10 or 59,049, and that assumes that we are using the same 10 single-syllable words. I am not trying to reduce poetry to a mathematical formula; I am trying to demonstrate the physical complexity of poetry. Although I’m sure that the total number of relationship paths for all the words and combination of words and word groups could be derived, it would be an astronomically large number. I’m also certain that the total number of relationship paths in the current body of extant poetry is miniscule compared to the universe of potential paths.

    The obvious reason as to why the total amount of extant poetry is small compared to the universe of potential paths is that not all potential paths produce poetry. The question then becomes: Which relationship paths produce poetry? Or, in short: What is a poem?

    A poet was once asked the question, “How do you know when you’ve written a poem?” The answer was: “When an editor buys it, then I’ve written a poem.” Teachers and students struggle with defining poetry every day. Most poetic attempts in the classroom result in mimicry that only satisfies the mechanical definition of what a poem is. As I’ve struggled to answer the question of what a poem is, I have settled on an analogy to an idea gleaned from my study of philosophy. In the field of ethics, actions may be either right or wrong. I believe that, analogously, in the field of poetics, a poem may be either poetic-right or poetic-wrong.

    So what makes a poem poetic-right or poetic-wrong? If the relationship paths in a poem are all poetic-right, the poem is poetic right. If any of the relationship paths in a poem are poetic-wrong, then the poem is poetic-wrong, or at least not poetic right, and therefore not a poem.

    This is why every word matters in a poem. The sound of each word in a poem matters. The meaning of each word in a poem matters. The placement of each word in a poem matters. Arbitrariness has no place in poetry. (Unless arbitrariness itself is specifically being employed as a poetic device.)

    At this point I have deconstructed the concept of poetic-right down to the basic level of poetic relationship paths. But, we still do not have any idea of what makes a poem poetic-right or poetic-wrong. This is where the muse comes in.

    Although I do not fully understand the workings of the muse, it helps me to relate it back to my ethics analogy. In ethics we speak of a “moral imperative,” a principle which compels the individual to act rightly or wrongly.

    Here is the definition of the moral imperative from Wikipedia:

    A moral imperative is a principle originating inside a person’s mind that compels them to act. … Later thinkers took the imperative to originate in conscience, as the divine voice speaking through the human spirit. The dictates of conscience are simply right and often resist further justification. Looked at another way, the experience of conscience is the basic experience of encountering the right.

    Translated analogously into what I would call the poetic imperative, it would read as follows:

    The poetic imperative is a principle originating inside a poet that compels them to compose poetry. The poetic imperative may originate in the poetic conscience, as the divine voice speaking through the human spirit. The dictates of the poetic conscience are simply poetic-right and often resist further justification. Looked at another way, the experience of poetic conscience is the basic experience of encountering the poetic-right.

    Remember, I am not asserting that a poem is right or wrong from a moral point of view (I actually believe that poetry is amoral), but, analogously a poem may be poetic-right or poetic wrong depending on the poet’s application or dis-application of the poetic imperative, i.e., the muse.

    The poetic imperative is the muse.

    Philosophers debate whether the moral imperative originates within the individual or outside the individual. Humanists and atheists would argue the latter, theists and spiritualists the former. I believe the same arguments can be engaged in by those ready to debate the origins of the muse, the poetic imperative. I am not presently as concerned with the origins of the muse as I am with my interactions with it. To quote William Blake: “I will not reason and compare, my business is to create.” Whether the muse comes from within or without, if I do not follow it my poetry is poetic-wrong.
    How is that possible? How can a poem be poetic-right or poetic-wrong?

    If the poet composes the poem as directed by the muse, the poetic imperative, it is poetic right. The audience, in order to experience the poetic-rightness of the poem, must either trust the poet or seek their own confirmation of the poetic-rightness of the poem directly from the muse.

    If the poet composes the poem in any way other than that directed by the muse, it is poetic-wrong.

    So how does the poet know if he or she is following the poetic imperative, or listening to the muse? Back to the analogy–How does an individual know when he or she is making a decision that is morally correct? I remember one of my favorite lines from the movie K-Pax: “Every being in the universe knows right from wrong.” Every poet knows poetic-right from poetic wrong. If a decision, morally or poetically, needs clarification, justification, or equivocation, it is probably wrong.

  6. Have you heard the Glenn Beck radio spots that are running? He call STATES OF GRACE “The best Mormon movie I’ve ever seen” and “I saw it and loved it. My family wept.”

    There’s not too many Mormons here in Illinois, but that ad has certainly caught the attention of all the Evangelical Christian listeners who are fans of Glenn Beck.

    I bought the movie because of an Evangelical listener who told me about 1)Glenn Beck being a Mormon, and 2)Glenn quoting all these critics hailing it as the best Christian cinema has to offer.

    So my neighbor (the Evangelical Christian) buys it, we watch it and we love it. He even thinks the movie has now converted me to “true grace.”

    I very much believe that STATES OF GRACE has the rare – and historic – potential to break down many of the long-standing barriers separating mainstream Christians from us. Mitt Romney’s impending presidential campaign has already started to focus national media attention on the LDS Church in ways and at levels not previously seen. I’ve seen the polls suggesting that a significant percentage of the Christian base would have issues with Romney’s religious affiliation, and that misconceptions are still rampant as to what the LDS Church believes and stands for.

    Can STATES OF GRACE become the landmark film that Kimball and others have talked about?

    It answers simple misconceptions (ie. polygamy, Mormons dancing and our take on grace) and presents a view of LDS life that has never before made it to the big screen.

    In short, does this film have the potential to actually shift and mold public opinion?

    I may not be as well-versed as all of you, but in my neck of the woods, STATES OF GRACE is a hit among many of my Evangelical friends. I’d love to hear your thoughts…

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