where the writers are
Langston Hughes and Questions of Audience
Langston Hughes with Other Writers, Artists, Radicals, and Friends (including novelist Dorothy West) en route to the USSR, 1932

I wrote last time about the importance of audience for my work, a position I find myself not infrequently asserting in response to writers who come to workshops, retreats, and conferences where writers discuss and learn about craft and publication, but deny having any interest in a readership (or listenership). All the same, the problem more writers face is the one suggested by Eric's comment:

<<I imagine having an audience for one's work would be important. If you have any idea where I might obtain one, please let me know. :)>> -- Eric Nichols

How does one find one's audience?? A ten-million-dollar question, certainly. I'm not setting myself up here as an expert on anything -- well, except maybe my primary scholarly field of African American literature -- so I don't think I have "the answer" to that. But, to speak from what I've discovered for myself, as a poet, on the journey thus far, I would say that rather than conceiving of an audience as a thing that's already out there, a thing you must locate, it might be more useful to think of your audience as a thing you must create, in some of the same ways you create your literary works: virtually from scratch. Of course, Eric's phrasing was facetious; he doesn't actually believe that pre-packaged audiences are stored in a warehouse somewhere or itemized on a website to be clicked on and acquired! But if he is anything like I was just a few years ago, before I published my chapbook, he might be thinking of groups of people who already comprise the market for a certain author or genre with which his work is in conversation as the audience he'd like to have, if only he could reach them.

There are definitely ways of reaching large groups of potential readers efficiently, by placing ads in journals or on websites where those groups do their reading, and the like. But I have found that, rather than simply plugging into another author's (or a large generic) audience, what I needed to do, when I first began to emerge as a poet, was to build my own, slowly but surely. How? By doing readings, whenever possible, especially local ones, which enable you to build up name recognition. By publishing individual poems in the "little magazines," print and online, especially ones which cater to the readership you believe your work will speak to most readily. By attending gatherings of writers, where you can get to know others who can offer advice and perhaps recommend your work to readers and editors they know. And by attending gatherings of readers -- literary festivals, bookstore events, university/college talks, wherever the literarily minded are likely to be, with a focus on events that relate specifically to the kind of writing you do. (Not necessarily in that order!)

There's a lot of work involved in taking any of those steps that I'm not talking about; I'm not saying it's easy. But I was able to develop a strong local base of support for my poetry in my then home-state of North Carolina by taking some of these steps. That led to my shot at publishing a chapbook, which increased my ability to undertake those steps again (and again and again), which led to my first full-length book, which increased my ability to undertake those steps yet again (with a widening geographical focus, as I happened to move away from NC at around the time the book came out), and so on. My audience consisted first of a few very close friends who were also poets. Ten years later, I continue to be surprised to learn that I have readers whom I have never met, though I hear from and about them increasingly. Having developed an audience is a great gift -- and also a serious challenge! Will they like the next poem as much as they liked the previous one? Will the development of my politics and aesthetics (two closely related aspects of writing, as I see it) draw people into or push them away from my work? What is important to people who read (or might read) my poetry and what do I have to say about those important issues?

These questions tie back into the book I'm currently reading -- the biography of Langston Hughes, as I mentioned last time. Hughes struggled with these questions constantly as a young writer with a highly engaged social consciousness. And for him, as for me, issues of race played a serious role in this thinking about audience, and not in any simplistic either/or way. (Did I mention that I highly recommend this book -- not to mention his poetry? Read both, to get a sense of the complexity of these questions and concerns as they played themselves out in his life and career.) The picture illustrating this blog entry captures this, in one way. It is of him with a group of young black artists and intellectuals who were invited to visit the USSR to write and appear in a movie about labor issues facing black and white workers in the US. Needless to say, this type of "communist sympathizing" did not go over well with the more conservative citizens of the US, even a couple of decades before McCarthy . . . But communists and socialists were taking seriously the exploitation of black laborers (not to mention the travesty of justice that surrounded the Scottsboro 9), when others were not, which was more important to Hughes.

Your audience is your creation, and you continue to create it with each new piece of work you circulate -- it shifts and changes over time, never becoming static, and (one hopes) continuing to grow. That conversation a writer has with her readers (which is not as one-sided as it might seem to be) is a significant chunk of the joy of writing, for me. The other part is the creation of the work itself!

Peace.

Comments
6 Comment count
Comment Bubble Tip

Evie

Langston Hughes has come up a lot in Steve Hauk's conversations with me and in RR. Hughes came to my hometown of Carmel, CA, and Steve has found a photo of him, sitting on the beach with a dog and an unknown woman.

Regarding audience. It's a magical thing that happens with time. We all know when books of new authors emerge into the world, there are no trumpets blaring, but in time, by dribs, the readership gathers.

I realize that my audience will have to be "educated" by me. I am currently working in the graphic novel format, and many people assume that comics are the stuff parents tried to keep their kids from reading because they are non-nutritional. Most people don't know what a graphic novel is, and assume it's a step for beginning readers to take before reaching the all-linear text format of communication.

So, for me and for lots of people with work is not fit easily in the categories alloted by a bookstore, we/they have to go out and build an audience by teaching about the new format. It's doubly hard.

Comment Bubble Tip

photos and graphics

Belle,

I've actually just finished the chapter that details his year in Carmel! And that very photo you described is included in the biography. : )

You're right that you have extra hurdles working in the graphic novel format. I just read my first graphic novel a few months ago -- this despite having loved Neil Gaiman's "regular" novels and knowing that he's revered for his graphic novels, despite having heard raves about Allison Bechdel's graphic memoir. The one I began with was neither of these . . . and to be honest, I didn't love it. But I am clear that it was that book I didn't love -- not the graphic novel as a category. I hope to get to Bechdel's this summer and will be waiting for yours with bated breath! Meanwhile, I can tell you that scholars are paving the way for you somewhat; I have a couple friends who teach graphic novels in their lit courses, so you will have an increasingly prepared group of readers, at least among the young.

Comment Bubble Tip

Evie, do you mean

Arnold Rampersad's two volume biography on Langston Hughes, or is there something more recent? In any case, Rampersad goes into riveting detail on Hughes' time in Russia and Central Asia (the latter is an incredibly exotic, now dangerous part of the world. Our daughter Anne served in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan and we visited and got a first hand look. Must have been even more amazing when Hughes visited).

Hughes also spent time in Carmel, California, as Belle mentions. Alas, that was dangerous, too.

But it did not seem that much phased Hughes, though he was smart enough to get out when the going was good (see the Carmel chapter of Rampersad's book). He must have been very courageous.

Comment Bubble Tip

Audience

I think Belle gets to the heart of the matter when she calls it a magical thing. I always liked Frank O'Hara's argument in the personalism manifesto. I would only add to this thread that the viral spread you describe changes when you write about something you do. What I mean is that for me if I write an article in an academic journal I think very differently about it in terms of audience then I do when I decide to write about a custom motorcycle I am building in my garage.

Comment Bubble Tip

Hey, Matthew!

I hear you and Belle on the magical quality of it -- but it's a specific kind of magic. There's the kind where you call your fairy godmother, or rub on a lamp, and make a wish and -- poof! -- it comes true! Not that kind! : ) On the other hand, there's the kind of magic where you take a long journey, work hard and succeed at many tasks along the way, make lots of friends, and then, when it seems like you'll never reach your goal -- poof! -- along comes one (or ten) of those friends with exactly what you needed: information, advice, a kind word in the right ears, financial support, whatever! And there you are! (Think The Wizard of Oz...) : )

It's interesting, what you say about the difference for you between your scholarship and your writing about your personal life. I have a very strong personal investment in my current scholarly project (which is about poetry), so I often don't distinguish between my scholarly and creative writing, except in terms of process. I wonder if that will be true for me as well when I move on to the next thing...? Thanks for writing!

Comment Bubble Tip

Exactly!

I'm reading Rampersad, Steve. It is definitely engrossing, as I anticipated it would be -- and that owes as much to Hughes's incredible life as to Rampersad's beautifully controlled and inviting prose. What did Hughes not do??? (And I'm only near the end of Volume I!) A pleasant surprise for me was learning that he (and Zora Neale Hurston) also lived for a year or so in NJ, my current home state. Anyway, I think you're right -- he appears to have been fearless, not to mention more honest than most people. Thanks for your comment, as well as the recent entry on Hughes which I found on your own blog!