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Knowing Your Audience by Helene van der Westhuizen

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Profile picture of Heléne van der Westhuizen - Freelance Translator, Editor and Writer

Helene van der Westhuizen

One of my most important struggles since my very first careful steps into the hallowed world of creative writing has been the constant hammering on the fact that I should know my audience. Who is my ideal reader? I never knew and I don’t think I want to know. Imagine Kafka considering the reader before writing himself into waking up as a giant bug…

But how would I ever justify my view in the face of the writing industry’s insistence to the contrary?

Recently, I was blown away when I suddenly found some support for my view – in Walter Benjamin’s article, The Task of the Translator (1923):

In the appreciation of a work of art or an art form, consideration of the receiver never proves fruitful. Not only is any reference to a certain public or its representatives misleading, but even the concept of an “ideal” receiver is detrimental in the theoretical consideration of art since all it posits is the existence and nature of [humans] as such. Art, in the same way, posits [humans’] physical and spiritual existence, but in none of its works is it concerned with [their] response. No poem is intended for the reader, no picture for the beholder, no symphony for the listener.

Walter Benjamin (1923)

Finally! My soul could rest, and I could move on. I didn’t mind the quote being from almost a century ago even though we live in different times. It was there. Part of the discourse of some day.

But it wasn’t long before the follow-up question took over: How did we ever get from the point where Benjamin could make such a statement to the point where the known audience and the ideal reader dominate the discourse of today’s writing industry? I had no answer, so I let it lie because Benjamin says elsewhere:

The more circumspectly you delay writing down an idea, the more maturely developed it will be on surrendering itself. Speech conquers thought, but writing commands it.

During the past week’s preparation for the Multilingual Poetry Strand of the British Centre for Literary Translation’s Summer School in July 2022.* https://bit.ly/3clzC2y #BCLT2022 @bcltuea, I discovered two things that may at least partially answer this question:

  1. A You Tube talk by Onaiza Drabu on orality and decolonising Kashmiri literature.
  2. A Twitter thread by @david_perell on why the world’s biggest brand logos look more and more alike. https://bit.ly/3ATGMFi

Drabu talked about the changes in her own language use as many expressions have fallen out of her vocabulary in the day and age where much of her communication is ‘mediated through the WhatsApps of the world’.

And I’m thinking, ‘Oh wait, but mine too’, and snippets of a recent online forum conversation about the translation of a term come to mind. It had developed into a search for neologisms when an older member spoilt all the fun with a long-known, well-established term that everybody seemed to have forgotten.

Following the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, a principle suggesting that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ worldview and cognition, Drabu then argues her world must be shrinking in sync with her vocabulary.

My thoughts rippled out from there to social media platforms in general. How many professionals across the globe are on LinkedIn, for example, and how are we not drilled in using ‘plain English’, short and crisp sentences, all in the name of efficient communication?

And what is the influence of LinkedIn’s business speak on the creative souls who operate in that space, where every single person becomes the director of a business, no matter whether you just have you, yourself, and you to direct towards your little sweet spot in the sun?

David Perrell’s Twitter thread is long. Start from the top, scroll down, and see and read and get the chills down your spine when you see the famous brand logos, and how they have changed over the years. Perrell poses two possible reasons for the similarities:

1) Designers use the same tools that exert the same unconscious forces on their creative process, and 2) Aesthetic diversity is bound to fall in such a hyper-connected world.

An interesting response to his thread came from @cfcreative_: ‘This is what happens when the creative dept is overrun by the marketing dept. Being data-driven is the death of art.’

Our #writingcommunity is not immune to this effect. We have MFA courses. We have workshops. We hear the same discourse from multiple sources.

People read books. We like certain books and go directly to that section of the bookshop or library – or Amazon! – and do backflips at anything that smells of literary fiction. We have no interest other than being entertained. If we all want happy endings (for whatever reasons we produce about the harsh world we live in and using books to escape), fair enough, but have you ever found that the harsh world has become less harsh when you put the book down? So, we read happy ending after happy ending, or gorier blood and guts with every new book and publishers worldwide say: We want to publish books for entertainment. Read: Anything that may be thought-provoking, will not be published – no matter how well it is written.

I remember a time when books were tools to open up new worlds. What happens if we all get the same happy endings, the same blood and guts, the same clothes in the futuristic sci-fi series? Writers and readers aren’t any different.

For the first time ever, I understand why we can have an ideal reader, and why we have to know our audience. Me? I still don’t want either, and I’ll still dread the day that my book gets stuck in the blood-and-guts section.

(c) Helene van der Westhuizen

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