What’s in an Audience?

Well, I’ve been promising this post for over a month now, and here I am, writing it.

You may have noted that in every Why Write interview, I ask about audience: What audience does this genre attract? What impact does this genre have on that audience? How do you tailor your story for your audience?

Answers to the audience-tailoring question have ranged from, “I don’t, not at all,” to, “I think about what readers of X/Y age group can handle, and I try to work within those parameters.”

I’m gonna confess something here: I think about audience quite a bit. As much as I’d like to be an artistic slave to my characters, I know my role as deity of the work, and I think a lot about how my choices will affect the people who read my books.

Some of you may have heard me say that I’m not a fan of identity politics. I am a woman, for example, but that is not my defining trait. I don’t like to admit that I do, occasionally, vote my body-rights. I don’t want to choose authors to read or characters to like based on my gender/sexual/political identity. I hate it when I’m forced to choose my behavior based on some perceived biological or social role.

People in all positions do it, even when they’re not aware. White, middle-class men have a privilege I, as white, middle-class woman will never have—and even so, I have privileges a poor, black woman will never have. It goes on and and on down the chain, and, unfortunately, we can’t be blind to those differences. We all read with our own, unique biases, and most of those biases come from our place—our identity—in the society we currently inhabit.

It sucks, but it happens. Despite our best efforts, we don’t live in a post-sexist, post-racist, post-homophobic, post-anything world. All of those things still exist. They’re all rampant and appalling, and a lot of us aren’t even aware of what’s happening. We are occasionally blind to the needs of a political/social/racial/gender/sexual identity not our own.

That’s why I think about my audience. How, I wonder, will this piece of violence affect such-and-such reader in some place I’ve never been, who was hurt in a way I couldn’t imagine? What will this bad character’s appearance say to readers about my own racial blindness or lack thereof? Are there too many male villains in this novel about a female protagonist? Or are there too many male heroes in this novel? If a teenager reads this book, how will he feel about the homeless young man my protagonist takes under her wing? If someone reads it who has physical challenges I can’t understand, will she resent me for not including someone like her? Are the blank spaces in my cast of characters caused by blindness, ignorance, or indifference?

Those are big, hairy, important questions, and they come up every single day in my fiction writing. They make me uncomfortable sometimes, and they make my job more difficult, but I would rather suffer some replotting or fuzzy introspection than offend or mortify some innocent bystander down the road.

I’m not trying to say that my approach is better than those who hold story sacred, and don’t diverge from plot in favor of audience understanding—their way may be more honest, and quite possibly much easier, than my method of considering the ramifications of each fictional choice.

I’m also not saying I’m better than anyone who doesn’t spend so much time worrying about these issues. I’m sure I’ll step in it, probably unintentionally, at some point in my writing career. Perhaps this process comes more naturally to others.

But regardless of judgment values, I’d argue that we must consider our audience.*

Fiction does not exist in a bubble, even if we write it in one. Every reader will bring his or her own biases and sensitivities to your world, even if you haven’t accommodated those special needs. Once our fiction is out in the world, it belongs to the world: audience shapes a reading as much as the writer’s intent, whether you’re a fan of New Criticism or not.

What do you think, readers? If you’re a writer, how do you take audience sensitivities into account? As a reader, how does your own identity shape your reading? What do you think is the audience’s role in fiction?

 

*Please note: I’m not accusing any Why Write author of offending their readers or showing callousness. Everyone I interviewed was a thoughtful, caring writer who I’m sure adores the people who read their books.