Writer’s Desk: Know Your Audience

battleborn1Claire Vaye Watkins has a truly astounding piece in Tin House, where she writes with gimlet-eyed precision on not just the infinite ways female and minority writers are put in a box by a white male literary establishment, but on how to write for a particular audience.

She wasn’t shocked that an older gentlemen came up to her at a signing and said how surprised he was that he liked her stuff. That was her intention:

I wrote Battleborn for white men, toward them. If you hold the book to a certain light, you’ll see it as an exercise in self-hazing, a product of working-class madness, the female strain. So, natural then that Battleborn was well-received by the white male lit establishment: it was written for them. The whole book’s a pander.

Watkins writes that she had never looked up to women writers, because that’s not what she had been taught to do:

I watched the boys, watched to learn. I wanted to write something Cormac McCarthy would like, something Thomas Pynchon would come out of hiding to endorse, something David Foster Wallace would blurb from beyond the grave.

We like to think of art as being outside the ugliness of the power structure and society’s coarsening anti-intellectualism. It is nice to imagine that writing can be (as millennials would put it) a safe space. But that’s not always the case:

I was under the impression that artmaking was apart from all the rottenness of our culture, when in fact it’s not apart from it. It is made of it.

Know your audience but don’t let them minimize you. Don’t allow your writing to be limited by anything except your own hard-fought talent. Do the work, don’t be afraid, and never take no for an answer.

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