“Who shall tell what may be the effect of writing?”: On Audiences and Serendipity

Bonnard The Letter

Who shall tell what may be the effect of writing? (Middlemarch, Ch. XLI)

One of the things I always emphasize to my students is the importance of considering your audience when you are writing. Knowing your intended audience settles a lot of questions about tone as well as style and content: formal or informal, colloquial or specialized, anecdotal or analytical. I usually recommend that they not think of me as their primary audience but aim their writing at another member of the class — a really top-notch, well-informed one who knows the readings and has followed our discussions closely.  You know you don’t have to summarize the plot for this reader. What you can do that such a reader will appreciate is draw attention to a pattern or idea or formal issue that deserves more sustained attention. And so on.

One of the unsettling things about writing a blog is that you can’t be certain who your audience is or will be. Given the competition for readers’ attention, you can’t be sure you even have an audience, much of the time, and most of us will never have a big one. And one of the questions every blogger surely confronts at some point is: how much should I care about this?

I think it’s disingenuous to pretend the question is “do I care?” Of course we care. If we really didn’t care about anyone ever reading what we write, we’d use old-fashioned notebooks — the kind you write in with pens! Writing in public is a symptom of a desire for readers, not because we’re egomaniacs or narcissists (though all writers, no matter their platform, surely need to have a bit of the egomaniac in them, enough to make them believe they have something worth writing down) but because we want to be part of the larger conversation about whatever it is that we are passionate about.

But the fact remains that readers are scarce, and attention (the currency of the internet) is hard to get. If you feel, as you are bound to sometimes, that the big conversation is going on somewhere else, without you, you can start thinking that you should do something, change something, write something, to get attention. You should write deliberately for an audience, and not the audience you actually do have of people who care about you and the writing you’re actually doing, but some imagined audience that would care if only you did something different. And yet, as Kerry  Clare eloquently explains in her recent post “Blogging Like No One Is Reading,” this is a bad idea:

To do the opposite of blogging like no one is reading is terrible advice for a variety of reasons. First, because most of the time, no one is going to be reading, and so there has to be something more than feedback from the outside world to push a novice blogger on. Second, because you’re never going to be able to predict what readers will respond to and what they won’t. It’s the strangest serendipity, and attempts to orchestrate this will absolutely drive you crazy. It will also result in the naked tap-dancing that just looks ridiculous, and never more so than when it doesn’t work and still, no one is reading. And there you are in your feather boa and your silly top hat, when dancing wasn’t even what you planned to be doing in the first place.

You need to write as who you really are, so that you will want to do the writing, and so that you will be pleased about the conversations you do get into, whether with your readers or just with yourself in a follow-up post. As Kerry says, there’s a strange serendipity to it all, and not only would you go crazy trying to orchestrate it, but you can go kind of nuts trying to figure it out when it does happen. Why my most-read post of all time is “How to Read a Victorian Novel” is puzzling to me; that it is my most-read post of all time is, if I think too hard about it, kind of annoying, considering it’s not by any means the best writing I’ve ever done here…but I had a great time writing it, so if it had stayed in peaceful obscurity, I would have had no regrets, and since I believe every word of it, I can only find its popularity cheering.

anthologyI mostly don’t fret too much about the audience for this blog: it’s my space, and I just do my thing, at my own pace. But when I write for Open Letters Monthly, I often struggle more with how to write or who to write for — or just what to write, since there are no limits and no imperatives, thanks to the deliberate breadth of the journal itself and the latitude my colleagues allow their co-editors. Though there have certainly been pieces I have been invited or urged or even pressured to write, I can’t imagine the topic I could propose that they would actively discourage! In puzzling out what project to take on next for Open Letters, I sometimes get caught up in questions about who would want to read what I have to say on a particular book or subject. What audience would I be writing for? Is there an audience I should be deliberately aiming for? Because of my own training and pedagogy, these have always seemed reasonable questions. But to my surprise, the most vehement advice I got from my most ruthless and motivating mentor was: never, ever, think about your audience! That’s the one thing you must put entirely out of your mind!

But how could this be? why is this wrong? I have always wondered. I’m coming to realize that the reason it’s wrong in that case is the same as the reason it’s wrong in blogging: if you’re hoping to second-guess the erratic interests of an amorphous online readership, you’ll end up endlessly second-guessing yourself, and you won’t write well (or, at least, you won’t write your best) or write things you believe in absolutely. Forget the timely hook, the link-bait trend, the ambulance-chasing review. If you have the luxury I have of not having to write anything in particular, then write what you know, write what you care about, write what you’d love to talk about if you got the chance, and write as well as you possibly can. That way if you do get the chance to join in a bigger conversation, it will be one you’re excited to be in. And in the meantime, you’re being your best, and also your unique, writing self — who else would you want to be, and who else, really, would anyone want to read?

I’m feeling buoyed about this perspective on writing because I’ve been caught up in a bit of that strange serendipity Kerry talks about as a result of the essay about Richard III mentioned in this recent post. It’s an essay that had no extrinsic reason at all to get written. My only justification for writing it was that the topic has been dear to my heart since childhood and then turned out to be intertwined with many intellectual strands from my later life as a scholar. It had its roots in a blog post prompted by one of my very earliest encounters with Open Letters. I began working up notes for an essay on this material in the summer of 2011 and got all excited about it (and wrote about it here and here) and then, as I later explained to Steve, “lost faith in the project: it seemed too esoteric to be of general interest.” Obviously, he talked me back into it, and it was great fun (if also a fair amount of work!) getting it into shape and finally published in May 2012. After all that time I had made something I was proud of from an unlikely but, to me, fascinating combination of elements.  That was that, and that was enough! Nobody commented on it, it didn’t get any external links, I doubt it reached a very wide audience — but there it was.

AlltheworldThen last fall they started digging up the skeleton that turns out almost certainly to be Richard III’s. Suddenly there’s a surge of interest in his story, and when people go looking for something to read about it, one of the pieces they find is mine. It hasn’t gone viral or anything, but it has found a new audience, including the author of this Globe and Mail story, and also a producer for CBC who contacted me to confer about ways I might contribute to a potential documentary about the discovery of his remains. I don’t know yet what, if anything, will come of the proposal, but no matter what, that’s twice in a week I’ve had a chance to talk with curious people about one of my pet subjects, and, through them, to share my enthusiasm and my ideas with others. Once again, I’m immensely cheered by the whole process, even as I’m amused at its unpredictability. Fond as I am of the Richard III essay, I don’t consider it the best writing I’ve done for Open Letters. It is among the more personal pieces I’ve done. If I’d really thought about who might read it, maybe I would not have included the hopelessly nerdy picture of my younger self beside Richard’s statue in Leicester! I’m glad I didn’t worry about that, though. Another piece of advice I often give my students is that your writing represents you. It might as well represent the whole you, warts (or 80’s glasses) and all.

One final thought about audiences. Academic prestige (not to mention professional advancement)  is strongly tied to writing for academic audiences. Sure, there’s rhetoric about outreach and “knowledge dissemination” and so on, but my experience is that most academics don’t take writing and publishing outside conventional academic channels very seriously: it doesn’t really count. Just recently a colleague praised my Open Letters essay on Anne Brontë for its interest and originality, then spoiled the nice moment by adding “You should really publish it sometime.” I was genuinely pleased that a specialist found the essay valuable, but I did already “really” publish it. I just placed it — and wrote it — so that it would be accessible to non-specialists as well. I have persisted with this kind of writing and publishing, despite the likely professional disadvantages, because I believe  in it: I believe that one thing (not the only thing) we should do with our expertise is share it widely and show people why we’re excited about it. The CBC producer was explicit that her interest in contacting me came from her reading of the essay, which she described as “fun academic writing” — not, that is, the kind of academic writing she usually runs into, but nonetheless writing she recognized as expert. As I told her, that was music to my ears! The specific attention to Richard III that drew her to this piece was certainly serendipitous, but the existence of the piece in the first place, and its presence out in the open where she could find it, was not, and it’s not just cheering but gratifying to have the value of writing for a different audience affirmed in this way.

Richard III Redux

richard3

Anybody who has known me for more than, oh, twenty minutes has probably learned about my long-time fascination with Richard III. I wrote all about it for Open Letters last year. Little did I know that if I’d only held back my piece for a few months, I could have ridden the wave of Richard III-mania stimulated by the amazing archaeological project undertaken by the University of Leicester. As everybody knows by now, their work culminated in the announcement, just yesterday, that the skeleton in the car park is almost certainly Richard’s. The University has put together a fascinating, comprehensive site about the whole thing.

I know there are those who find this all distasteful: sensational, pandering to the media (and to the forces pressuring academics into proving their public “impact”), making a circus out of research … or just unfortunate because of the emphasis on a famous figure, as if archaeology and history are less interesting and important if they focus on ordinary people and ordinary lives. I have some sympathy for that last concern: there are many who “rest in unvisited tombs,” and there are lots of reasons to value and tell their stories: in the last century or so there’s been a transformation in historical priorities precisely in this direction, away from a focus on great men (and the occasional great woman).

Still, I can’t see raining on this parade. Aside from the intrinsic excitement of discovery, of adding some certainties to a centuries-old mystery (here’s a piece of the puzzle that has been missing for over five centuries, after all!), isn’t there something exhilarating about seeing a wider public get excited about something like this? Who knows what might be the wider effects–benefits, even–of sparking people’s imaginations in this way. Individual stories bring history into focus: they help us think about it as something that happens to real people. And this truly is a sensational story.

skeletonRiii

There’s something both thrilling and poignant about the spectacle of this broken body. It’s one thing to debate the theoretical value or responsibilities of historical fiction to the past. It’s another thing to see that past resurrected in all its tangible but enduring fragility. Difficult as our access to it may be, and impossible as it may be to reduce it to a single story, there is something that really happened. Now, here in front of our eyes, is, quite literally, the skeleton which has been fleshed out in so many memorable ways. I find it stunning: it gives me goose-bumps.

facial_reconstruction1
From the Richard III Society site, the facial reconstruction based on the discovered skull.

 

Updated: Thanks to my Open Letters essay on Richard III (linked above), I was contacted by Kate Taylor of the Globe and Mail to chat as part of her research for this piece on the continuing appeal and controversy of his story.