If you enjoy listening to the radio, you’re probably familiar with NPR’s Saturday evening show A Prairie Home Companion. For 42 years host Garrison Keillor has been transporting listeners to the imaginary Midwestern town of Lake Woebegone.
Here’s what happens if you’re part of his regular audience: It doesn’t matter if you’re Jewish, or Baha’i, or a Floridian (like me), or a New Yorker who does most of your shopping at the Macy’s flagship store (as I did years ago). You start pretending that you’ve eaten many potluck dinners in the basement of a Lutheran church, endured endless Midwestern winters, and made frequent trips to Bertha’s Kitty Boutique for last-minute gifts.
Last Saturday was Keillor’s last appearance as host of the show. Chris Niles will be taking over, and he faces a big challenge: Making loyal listeners feel that they’re still connected to Lake Woebegone.
Today’s topic is a writer’s audience. I used to find it a hard concept to teach because – ironically – it seems so simple: You should shape your writing so that you connect with your readers. Easy. Obvious. Why even talk about it?
But when you start digging into the concept of audience, it becomes much harder to understand – and even harder to explain. Here’s what makes it so difficult: Good writers invent their readers.
Egad. What does that mean?
Garrison Keillor to the rescue! When A Prairie Home Companion came along, many people (including me) enjoyed the show because it was fun to pretend we lived in Lake Woebegone. I would argue that this phenomenon often happens when we read.
Let me use this blog as an example. Online visitors come here because they want help with English usage. (My most popular post – by far – is about using a comma with although). But visitors who stick around and start reading my regular postings become (at least in their imagination) people who want to delve into the deeper mysteries of writing. (I know this is true because I hear about it from some of you.)
We have a partnership going: I address you as a serious writer, and you forget for a moment that all you wanted was an answer to a @#$%! question about apostrophes or capital letters.
Many forms of writing invent their audiences.
There are people who avidly read cookbooks even though they never so much as fry an egg. They enjoy pretending to be culinary experts. Others do the same thing with travel guides. They’re armchair travelers with no desire to spend hours in an airplane so that they can sleep in a strange bed in an unfamiliar city – but they love pretending to be tourists.
And then there are novels. Do you ever find yourself completely losing touch with your everyday life when we pick up a good novel? It happens to me all the time. (In three weeks I’ll be making a for-real trip to Norway to step inside a stave church in the hope of experiencing – for just a moment – the long-ago world of one of my favorite novels.)
If you’re an English major, very likely you’ve read a classic article that started many writers (including me) thinking more deeply about audience: “The Writer’s Audience Is Always a Fiction” by Walter Ong. (It’s sometimes available online, and you can access it through your local library’s databases.)
I always encourage writers to read at least the beginning of this essay, where he talks about the strategies Hemingway uses to establish intimacy with him and his imaginary characters. (When you think about it, Garrison Keillor has been doing the same thing for 42 years.)
I was – frankly – puzzled when I first read Ong’s article. Thinking about it over the years (and those frequent visits to Lake Woebegone) helped me start to figure out what he was saying.
In my next post I’ll have some practical ideas about capturing the imagination of your readers – or, as Walter Ong would say – “fictionalizing” them.