Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (The Force of What’s Possible—Issue 47, November 2014)

Mark Wallace
The Judgment of the Audience

The activity of writing implies a reader. In diaries the reader is often the same as the writer, yet diaries that become famous prove that even writing not necessarily meant for others can still be read by them. The only way to make certain that no one reads something: destroy it.

An audience might be defined as a specific social structure of readers, self-selected certainly, yet recognizable as a demographic, even though it may impossible to account for all the nuances within the demographic. An audience can be described, persuaded, target-marketed, with different degrees of success.

I’ve often said that I want readers more than an audience. The idea of a reader implies the full range of possible human responsiveness, not just the more distanced, measurable response of an audience. Yet I make that critique of audience because I’m aware, even self-conscious, about my relation to audience. To have an audience is to be watched. Even when writers write because we want our words to be watched, which most writers want, the disciplinary and surveillance aspects of being watched remain. An audience is always significantly a judgment.

The writing itself creates possible audiences, even if an audience never materializes or turns out to be different than the writer imagined. But writing can’t build an audience on its own; the demographic that might possibly like the writing must be reached through the publication platform (the press and format, etc.) and spreading of information by which the writing becomes public. Most broadly, audiences develop around the structural elements of genre, although more specific genre markers like subject matter and the author’s cultural identity are important. If a writer wants to reach the audience of a given genre, subject matter and other elements can vary as long as the book is structured in a way close enough to genre norms.

Because I have written different kinds of books and read my work publicly to different kinds of audiences, I feel experienced in the game of knowing which audiences will like which parts of my work. That also means that I sometimes know, to varying degrees, what audiences won’t like. Frequently I’ve found the possibility of predicting audience reaction unpleasant. I can calculate in advance what I should read, but how should I respond to what I think I know? Do I give people what they want, soothing my ego and theirs in the glow of our mutual self-satisfaction and policing? Do I resist them, frustrating all of us with our inability to find common ground? Do a bit of both: reject and accept them by turns and have them do the same to me, so that we all feel soothed and slighted and challenged? I have at times chosen all these approaches. When people say something about my work, I want to be surprised.

I don’t mean to suggest that any audience has just one response to writing. All audiences are combinations of differences, yet still, on aggregate, responses are often predictable. In fact I have sometimes given readings knowing, to a certain extent anyway, which people in the audience will like which parts of what I’m reading.

While consciousness of audience doesn’t control how I write, there’s no doubt that my ideas about audience affect my work. They probably play a role in the fact that I write with so many different approaches, some accessible to so-called general readers (itself a demographic, if somewhat unspecific), others nearly unreadable by all but the most informed readers of contemporary poetry. I’ve written in these ways because I want my writing to challenge my own flexibility with language, even as the themes which most drive me recur. I often want to write something in a way I haven’t before, although sometimes I return, differently, to a way I’ve written in the past.

If my goal was to sell many books and become well known, that approach would be career-suicide. To some extent, that’s what it has been. Even among smaller, non-mainstream audiences, the way to become known remains similar: be predictable enough that your audience feels comfortable that they know how you write, while creating enough surprise and uniqueness to stand out. Violating fundamental demographic conditions often leads to writing rejected by the demographic, unless one’s work is already well-established. Even then, deviations are frequently less successful, although sometimes writers receive praise for trying something new.

Whether it results from my interest in writing differently than I have before, or in writing differently from what I imagine an audience expects, my writing insists on disloyalty to any single audience. That results in a situation in which few people read the range of my published work, and even fewer like all of it. Could I have done things differently? Maybe. In terms of my own intellectual and emotional desires, maybe not. I feel driven to try new things, to unsettle my own aesthetic dispositions, and that drive has long since become one of my most central aesthetic dispositions.

One thing that distinguishes the social conditions of my generation of writers exposed to, and engaged with, the history of avant gardism is that after nearly a hundred years of the avant garde concept, nothing about experimental approaches necessarily violates usual audience demographics. To be identified as an “avant garde” writer (I leave aside here problems with the term “avant garde,” which are many), one has to write in a way that’s acceptable to the audience for work of that kind. Writing in a way consciously disloyal to the desired demographic, even among aesthetically risky individuals and communities, still remains rare.

Writers might respond to the limiting structures of audience by ignoring them, at least as much as possible. Write as one wants to write and leave the problems of audience demographics to others. I know some writers who do this. I often envy their self-possession and conviction, or even just obsession, if they have it. Too much awareness of audience demographics can make writing frustrating, a way of self-consciously performing oneself for others with a painful need for approval at its base. Yet I can’t pretend that I don’t recognize that writing is a social performance, so I have to please and disturb and challenge myself with the various kinds of genres and performances my writing both reflects and creates.

What is an audience for me? A problem and possibility that my writing has to confront, and about which I have no final answer. My goal regarding audience is not to have my writing read any more than to have it not read. Nor is it really to insist, naively, that some reader should give my work the thorough engagement that with any luck it demands, although of course I hope for that. Even individual readers can never respond from more than their own desires for involvement, which can engage while never exactly matching my own. Writing with awareness of audience requires recognizing that writing which challenges audience demographics can never be broadly embraced. It can however continue to gesture, no matter how quietly, to a space where all human interaction has not yet already been described and assigned a place.