Saturday, August 30, 2008

Writers and conceptions of audience (part one)

When it comes to the issue of what kind of readers various writers wish to reach, one might start by defining three (inevitably fluid) categories:

1) Popularists
Those who wish their writing to be read by many people.

2) Groupists
Sometimes called tribailists, groupists imagine their work as part of a specific social group, a minority in Deleuze’s sense, that defines itself as different both in circumstances and values from the larger society of which it is a part. Groupists want to participate in a specific minority literary tradition and to have their work read by others who identify themselves as part of that group or are otherwise invested in the creations of that group. If one defines the avant garde or experimental impulse, for instance, as residing primarily in a history of techniques and the groups that have used those techniques, and if one wishes to be identified as avant garde on the basis of participating in those techniques and groups, then one can be said to be groupist.

3) Individualists
Individualists insist that the value of a work of art is found primarily in its aesthetic and cultural autonomy, and that the best written works will in great measure resist and defy, perhaps even entirely ignore, accepted conventions of writing, even the anti-conventional conventions of the avant garde. The issue of readers is secondary at best to individualists, who might in the most extreme sorts of cases see the lack of an audience as a function of the work’s integrity. More often, individualists are interested less in groups of readers than in individual readers. As Ben Friedlander has pointed out, in the short run one or two readers may be all a writer needs to ultimately be read by many others.

The question of the readers one wishes to reach is bound up with the question of the production methods that allow one to reach readers. The mass market repetitions of the popularist, the defined field of the groupist, the almost total lack of official options for the individualist. Popularists and groupists must contend with the publication mechanics of their context, and to some degree conform to them, whether on the level of principle or practical opportunity. Individualists must always struggle against easy moralism, the quick insistence that their work can’t be published because it’s wonderfully unique. Because it’s such an easy temptation to fall for, moralism about the inherent greatness of work that’s so non-conforming that it can’t be published seems unlikely to reflect actual greatness, however greatness might be defined.

Still, desire is related to productive practice in complicated ways. One can wish to be a popular writer, for instance, without automatically being willing to give in to writing work with the characteristics of the mass market literature that at this time reaches large audiences. Some writers probably feel combinations of all three urges at various times, and struggle with the unavoidable distinctions between working with the mechanisms that support each kind of urge.

I sometimes wish I could believe that writing that resists the literary conventions of its time and the social forces that control them is automatically better writing or even the only interesting writing. But as much as I would like at times to believe it, I don’t. Acting on any of the three urges above, and involving oneself in the production mechanisms that came along with them, can result in writing that’s worth reading.

Consider a genre market writer like Phillip Dick. Published originally in the cheapest kinds of science fiction paperbacks. Politics, language, identity, the self, and the struggle for the control of the nature of time are explored, as often is trumpeted, in ways as complicated as the work of Borges, to whom he is often compared.

The danger of popuarlism: sensational and uncritical writing that reflects, both in content and structurally, the corrupt values of a corrupt society.

The danger of groupism: smug restatement of already agreed-upon in-group values.

The danger of individualism: the smug comfort of being crankily contrary.

The communities (or lack of one, in the case of the individualist) that support any of these positions all have measures of quality built into them at the same time that these measures of quality are acknowledged as faulty even by many members of those communities.

The measure of quality in popularism is sales, that is, the approval of the audience. Yet few participants in the mass market, whether artists, publishers, or readers, are likely to believe in any absolute way that strong sales figures are the equivalent of quality. However, sales are undoubtedly the marker of the popularist writer’s future publishing possibilities.

The measure of quality in groupism is references to the work by other members of the group, that is, the approval of the group, which in this case is the same thing as the audience. Groupists are likely to see these references as indications of genuine quality while at the same time some groupists might recognize why such references cannot be a final indication of quality.

The measure of quality for an individualist often may be no more than internal conviction that the writer is producing quality work despite the fact that no one else thinks so, or that no more than one or two other people think so. Yet a conviction of quality is hardly an assurance of quality.

Ideas about quality are thus defined by the mass audience, the in-crowd, or internal conviction at the same time that quality cannot be determined in any absolute way by any of those things.

Still, it’s easier to say that quality remains undefinable than it is to do away with the concept. Whatever measures are used to define it, no matter how inappropriate, many writers still believe in the importance of writing well.

There’s no need to worry that poor writing will overwhelm the significance of good writing. One, because it always has overwhelmed it, although that doesn’t prove that it always will. Two, because good writing always emerges anyway, if only in a few instances here or there, and however it’s defined. And that’s true even when good writing remains undefined, and even when one lives in a society whose values seem opposed to writing well.

Is it possible that a society can become so coercive that all possibility for good literature could be eliminated? In Stalinist Russia, some poets carried copies of their own poems, or of the poems of writers like Mandelstam, in bits of paper they kept in their clothes or otherwise hid away, sometimes for decades.

Still, if the urge for literary creation can be said to be so powerful that it will continue to exist as long as even a few people have a capacity for thought and writing, that tells us nothing about what a society would look like if it placed significant value on literary creation regardless of its economic effect. As long as we live in a society which values money above all else, the chances of encountering powerful writing remain much rarer than they might be, and have much less social effect than they could.


Robert M said...

What is that line: Poetry is the confusion between issue and reception?

Spoken like a true maverick [etym. texas engineer/rancher who refused to brand his cattle], I'll take the errant singularity -- to go please.

This errancy is the problem figured by an academic -- perhaps preoccupied with establishing some objective basis for canon formation.

How to teach the error?

mgushuedc said...

You could also come at this the other way. Not from the standpoint of production, but of reception. For instance, the differences among the categories readers, audience and public. I think both Ong and Edwin Muir believed there no longer was such a thing as an audience.