The Critics’ Corner
Who’s Your Audience?
by Don Webb
“Hey, whatcha doin’?”
So might a conversation start between one of our contributors and a friendly passer-by. Not much of a conversation so far, is it? But this is Bewildering Stories, and things can take an unexpected turn.
Now, the next question will probably be: “What about?” Fair enough; that is a question we expect. But let’s take the content for granted for the moment.
“Oh? Who for?”
That’s an unusual question. And yet it is a good one. “To write” is a verb of communication, and as such it is a transitive verb par excellence: whenever we pick up a pencil or sit down at a keyboard, we write something to someone. And who else is there but the three grammatical persons: “I, you, they.”
Let’s look at the three persons and see how they might apply to writing poetry and fiction.
First person: Yourself? We write to ourselves all the time. Whenever we scribble a note on a calendar or make out a grocery list, we write a message to ourselves in the future.
The same goes for a chronicle, diary or journal. You use it to send a record of a memory to yourself. Maybe you’ll come back to it some day; maybe you won’t. What’s so special about it, then? Since you’re writing to yourself and to no one else, only you know what the message means. Others may guess more or less well, but that’s all they can do; they don’t have the big picture and must fill in the blanks from their own experience.
“Dear diary” literature, then, has a one-person audience: the writer alone. And for that reason, Bewildering Stories cannot take an interest in such submissions; they’re not really meant for us. By their very nature, they’re encrypted, written in a code to which only the author has the key.
The results are hardly ever any good. At one extreme, “dear diary” yields superficial, uninteresting prose. At another extreme, the message may dissolve into incoherence or arcane obscurity. We don’t mind allusions, and we like complex imagery. However, we are sensitive to writers’ using language as a smokescreen, to say something without saying it while dropping hints to make us guess what it might be. We even have an article about that: “Subtlety and Symbol.”
Second person: This would be a real person, one you can name and who will almost certainly read your work. We write to a second-person audience normally in notes, letters, and e-mail. But in a submission to Bewildering Stories? Whom do you have in mind? The editor? Which editor? Bewildering Stories has a whole phalanx of editors.
I can just hear the wheels turning now: “I’ll write something the Managing Editor will like...” Forget it. I like pleasant surprises. Okay, I admit I have a bibliography long enough to tell anyone what I like and don’t like. I blissfully assume that everyone hangs breathlessly on my every word, but in reality I entertain no illusions that anyone will read much — if any — of it. And I can’t imagine why anyone would want to imitate my writing. Do so at your own risk.
A real-life analogy may help to illustrate the second-person problem: students often make the mistake of writing term papers for their instructor. That’s seldom a good idea. It can be demoralizing: the student has to think at least subconsciously, “The professor already knows about this; what’s the point in my repeating it?”
Let’s adapt the analogy: magazine editors have sometimes printed announcements saying that prospective contributors can tell by reading the magazine what’s likely to be accepted. At Bewildering Stories we do not do that. We’ll cheerfully point to instructive models — we have them aplenty — but again: we want to hear from you, and we like to be pleasantly surprised.
Third person: Who’s left, then? Logically it’s everybody else. But a lot of help that is! To write for everybody is to write for nobody. Rather, write for one or more people you know. They may or may not be real. And if they are real, they may never read what you’re writing, but that’s irrelevant. What is important is that you do not want to write a story or poem for someone who will automatically approve of your every word simply to keep on your good side. You need someone who won’t do that, even someone who may not like you very much.
If you can keep in mind one or more friends or acquaintances you know will read skeptically, you have a good audience. Imagine them saying honestly:
- Don’t tell me, show me.
- Why should I believe that?
- Why should I care?
Again, it doesn’t matter whether your audience is real or imaginary. A guardian angel sitting on your shoulder will serve the purpose quite well by continually repeating those three admonitions.
Let’s go back to the term paper analogy. If you don’t write a report or paper for the professor, whom do you write it for? Your classmates? That’s not necessarily the best choice. Rather, write for a friend who wants to know what information you have and what it means.
And that means you have to convince your audience. All writing is persuasive; it leads the reader to a logical conclusion that is either stated in so many words or — in the best fiction and poetry — doesn’t need to be.
I can hear the clamor now: “You’re prescribing form and content!” Don’t be silly. You have to prescribe form and content. Take your cue from the Master Artist, without whose words all would yet be “without form, and void.”
Now, your assignment is to find examples in Bewildering Stories of:
- A passage in a work that “shows” rather than “tells.” Hint: look for concrete imagery and sensual detail.
And now a counter-example: a passage in a work that “tells” rather than “shows.” Hint: look for abstractions and for author’s commentaries that “do the reading for the reader.”
A work that raises the question “Why should I believe that?” Hint: the Challenges sometimes ask about plausibility. And lapses in logic and coherence automatically beg the question.
A work that raises the question “Why should I care?” Hint: if you can put it aside for any reason and, given the choice, never bother to return to it, you don’t care. Okay, why don’t you care? How could the author have convinced you, the reader, to stay on the page?
Now, finally, who am I writing this article to? Do I have someone in mind? Oh yes, more than one person; in fact, more than I can count, from over the years...
Copyright © 2009 by Don Webb
for Bewildering Stories