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Message in a Bottle

Taking aim at the target audience – or not ...


I hope that someone gets my …

These days you wouldn’t find me dead in a writing workshop. I mean by this no disrespect to those who are found alive in them. Writing workshops, in which participants deliver what is regrettably referred to as “feedback” on each other’s work, can be useful, especially when you’re starting out. There’s a time in your life when you need to know what it’s like to have somebody else, preferably a stranger, read and react to your work. But you can have too much of it. Call it fear, call it arrogance if you will, but the only “feedback” I want these days comes from those in a position to publish my work, or, at least, see it on its way.

In my writing workshop days I encountered a participant who introduced her comments on every piece with the line: “I’m not the target audience for this, but …” I was struck by this. Presumably there was some would-be liberalism at work here, and what she really meant was: “I think this is rubbish, but somebody might like it.” But what did it mean, “target audience”? I’d never heard the phrase before. Since then, I’ve heard it many times. As a writer, it seems, I must have a “target audience,” in the minutiae of whose tastes I am intimately versed, and shape my work according to its presumed demands.

The images we use reveal how we view the world, and a “target” brings to mind the aiming of darts, arrows, or guns, the lining up of a victim in an assassin’s sights. Your audience, figuratively, is an animal – or an enemy – you’re hunting down. It’s not pleasant to think this way. But is it useful? I don’t think so. Admittedly many people nowadays think of fiction, if they think of it at all, in the commodified genre terms they have learned from blockbuster movies, television, comics (“graphic novels”), and computer games. They’ll tell you in detail – with irony, perhaps, but seldom enough – about the requirements of a zombie apocalypse or a vampire romance. They can divide genres into sub-sub-genres with all a taxonomist’s skills. But a story without genre protocols leaves them cold – or confused.

Acute genre-consciousness leads, I think, to a rigidity of thought which is anathema to the development of interesting fiction. Individualism withers. Everything reminds you of something else. The dystopian future (now there’s a genre) that looms before us is one in which tens of thousands of enclosed, solipsistic “fans,” connected by the Internet, slaver endlessly over their own particular brand of formula fiction (teen werewolves; Conan the Barbarian-style fantasy; “erotica,” aka pornography), and never move beyond it. Indeed, this already happens. Nothing good can come of fiction by focus group; fiction for focus group is worse.


The man in Nabokov’s shaving mirror

Nabokov, when asked who he wrote for, said he wrote for the man whose face he saw in his shaving mirror each morning. In a world of market-speak, this is a tempting line. To write only for yourself seems a noble declaration of artistic integrity. It’s also disingenuous, if not a downright lie. Nabokov clearly wanted to publish his work and be admired for it. Writing is an act of communication, or aspires to be. When the castaway throws out his message in a bottle, he hopes the bottle will be found one day.

The message in a bottle is a better model for writing than the target audience. There’s another way of putting it: “Writers lead, readers follow.” No doubt this is too simple. Most writers do what they can or must do, and, if they’re lucky, readers come along. J. R. R. Tolkien – with crashing irony, given the rigidly formulaic genre he has inspired – provides perhaps the most spectacular example. It’s easy to forget how eccentric a book The Lord of the Rings was when it first appeared. There was no “market” for it, no guaranteed, pre-existing audience. The publishers, legend has it, expected it to sell about one thousand copies. Today, no mainstream publisher would touch such a book.

In recent years it has become common to refer to “non-genre” novels, books which aren’t crime, fantasy, romance, etc., as “literary fiction.” The term suggests a dispiriting commodification. (Was George Eliot a “literary novelist”? Or Joseph Conrad? Or Graham Greene?) One hostile cry, which goes up every time somebody’s favourite crime or science fiction novelist doesn’t get nominated for the Man Booker Prize, is that “literary fiction is a genre like any other.” (Hence, it shouldn’t be “privileged.”) This might be true if we believe the typical caricature of “literary fiction”: a type of precious, would-be “artistic” writing in which nothing happens, exquisitely – as if all “literary novels” were bad knock-offs of Virginia Woolf.

Naturally, the claim of quality in the term “literary fiction” generates hostility. I would be the first to agree that much so-called literary fiction is dreary rubbish, inferior as writing and storytelling to much so-called genre fiction (the excellent and hilarious jeremaid against modern fiction by B. R. Myers, A Reader’s Manifesto, is brilliant on this). But literary fiction – if we must use the term – remains an area of vast freedom in comparison with the genres, and valuable because of that. There is no typical literary novel; no particular thing that all literary novels must do to satisfy the audience (solve the crime, get the girl or boy into bed, bring on the monsters); no single special-interest group to which such novels appeal.

I could happily live in a world in which far less attention was paid to literary genres: in which readers did not define themselves as “fans” of this or that type of fiction, but ranged widely over subjects and styles; in which terms such as “science fiction,” “crime” or “romance” denoted not particular types of book but modes which writers might or might not employ; in which the focus was not on genres and genre-attributes but good writing of whatever kind. After all, when we have said that Joseph Conrad was a writer of sea stories, we have said nothing to explain why he was great.