Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Who's your audience?

by John

There was a fantastic op-ed piece by Michael Cunningham in this past Sunday’s New York Times, a must-read for anyone who wants to write. While ostensibly a piece about translation, Cunningham brilliantly articulates how writing is not an act of solo invention, and how it’s crucial not only for writers to recognize that they’re writing for an audience, but to identify specifically who that audience is as well. It’s a secret that successful genre writers know instinctively, but I’ve never seen it so neatly laid out for the general reader.

And I was particularly struck by how Cunningham improved his art through learning to write for an audience of one, namely Helen the hostess at a restaurant bar where he used to work. On first glance, it seems to go against common sense—I always assumed that even if you’re writing for a specific audience, like mystery fans or teen readers, you want to create something with broad enough appeal for all members of that audience. But then again, as Cunningham suggests, targeting a specific reader like Helen might actually create a more intimate conversation between author and reader and, hence, result in a better piece of work.

Obviously, there’s no right or wrong answer here, but again, kudos to Cunningham for framing the issue in such an elegant and accessible piece. No wonder this guy won a Pulitzer!


  1. Good post. Ishmael made me think of Ishtar which made me think of Avatar, but then my mind drifts. Cunningham however, is right on course (of course he is) with sentences needing rhythm and cadence.

  2. Thank you for the link. It isa fabulous piece and I'll be sharing it with my writer friends.

    Here’s a secret. Many novelists, if they are pressed and if they are being honest, will admit that the finished book is a rather rough translation of the book they’d intended to write.
    Wow, did I need to read that (and realize I'm not alone).
    Thanks again

  3. Amy posted the exact quote I was going to comment on. All writing is an act of translation, taking the thoughts in our heads, which exist in words but also in images, emotions, and languages all our own, and putting them down on paper in an ordered way that will make sense to a reader, whoever our audience is. Like Cunningham says, the book in our head is a transcendent thing, and we have to figure out how to bring it down to Earth.

    This piece also fascinates me because I was a linguistics major in undergrad and was especially interested in how the subtleties in language are captured when translating from one tongue to another. Word-for-word doesn't capture the nuances of language, and book translators have to work to capture the voice of the original.

  4. Kudos to you for posting it here. Thank you!

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