Who’s your audience anyway?

There’s a point, early on, in Margo Jefferson’s Negroland in which Jefferson pauses. “All readers are strangers,” she says. “Right now I’m overwhelmed by trying to calculate, imagine, what these readers might expect of me.”

In a lovely stylistic flourish, Jefferson actually spends much of her moving, memoiresque book pausing to address the reader directly, but you may be wondering, as I was, who exactly does Jefferson think that reader is?

In an interview Jefferson did following the book’s publication she responds to a query concerning her audience with a confession concerning her days as a critic, specifically, how she would ponder, after completing a piece, how each of her different audiences (at least the audiences she had some knowledge of) would respond to the judgments she had passed.

Critics of course know they are expressing no more than an opinion when they publish a review or assertive essay (hell, even reporters are really only presenting “as facts the interpretation of events put forward by one’s sources” in the words of Masha Gessen), as do most audiences, but the surety with which an opinion is delivered is what makes a good critic a good critic, or at least so we’ve been trained to believe; the idea being that while everyone won’t agree with you, you are one of a number of taste-makers whose opinion has been validated by publishers and therefore you represent at least one segment of the population with your opinion. You’ve been given the privilege to speak for others.

Of course this unfortunate reality is rank with complication: as Eve Sedgwick obviously but brilliantly pointed out “people are different from each other,” a fact journalism rarely takes into account, and a concept Maggie Nelson grapples with brilliantly in The Argonauts when she dissects the ramifications of “spokespeople” and the lack of choice one has in who is speaking for you, not to mention the lack of agency in choosing to be spoken for at all.

Another point of complication in the realm of criticism is of course language itself, something which is in and of itself assertive, despite what may be its users best intentions. Barthes expressed the futility of our sorry attempts at minimizing language’s impact by “add[ing] to each sentence some little phrase of uncertainty, as if everything that came out of language could make language tremble.” In other words, try as one might to insert qualifiers in any kind of writing, the fact that the words were written negates any effect a linguistic “qualifier” might have.

Add to that the fact that there are indeed audiences, many, which don’t grasp the role of the critic as a giver of opinions and don’t consider the audience for whom a certain piece may or may not be intended, and you’re left with a rather complicated mess; a number of people asserting opinion as almost-fact and an ever-increasing number of disparate audiences grappling with the ramifications of spokespeople and language.

I’m still working through this (disparate audiences, spokespeople), but I’ve often pondered how journalism and criticism could be more transparent and I think this issue relates. It’s too dreadful to discuss the death of criticism and journalism any longer, but the reality is that critics and journalists are increasingly writing for a very small audience, often for each other, and it seems as though the time is ripe for its role to evolve, or, at least in its current state and despite any desire I might have to the contrary, disappear.

There is certainly still an argument for the critic, the good critic anyways, in 2015.

I rationalize it this way. We all have innumerable books, films, essays, what have you, that we consume alone, a writer (using this word from here on out, it’s nicer), when sought out, can provide camaraderie and a shared experience where before it would have been solitary. Because I can not say it better, try this meditation on criticism from Jonathan Russell Clark penned in a review of books by Dani Shapiro and Wendy Lesser for The Rumpus:

People still think of critics only as those writers who are telling you whether or not you should read a book or see a film or purchase an album.

Bullshit. The role of the critic is, for me, about connection. How many books have you read that no one else you know has read? It happens to me all the time. There are simply too many books, too many authors, for any two people to have read the same exact list of works. How sad to let all your thoughts and feelings about a given text languish. Well, that’s where critics come in. Through them, I can finally have an enlightened conversation about literature. The critic becomes a stand-in friend so that I can contrast my response to a book against theirs.

I have consistently made the argument that while traditional media will (much of it, in the historical sense, already has) pass, there will always be room for clever, personal, smart criticism of numerous kinds, designed for numerous audiences, simply to put us in conversation with others; media which exists not for the sake of information but for enrichment. For validation. For community: the critic as friend.

Which actually isn’t as complete of a departure from the traditional role of criticism as it sounds.

Jefferson, in the previously mentioned discussion, reminisced about her days at the Times writing cultural criticism, and how, although she did not overtly address this in her writing, she would finish a piece and immediately go over in her mind how different audiences would perceive it; upper middle class whites one way, upper middle class blacks another, etc.

I’m skeptical that other critical writers don’t often, or at least on occasion, think about the same. Consideration of one’s audience is certainly on the rise thanks to the contemporary relevance of gender studies and the post-feminist movement. Using feminist critique as an example, as women have now achieved equality (at least on the surface) we have moved on to a finely detailed analysis of when and where we, as women, are acting to please a male audience and male expectations which are almost too engrained in our psyche for expulsion. Clare Vaye Watkins honestly examines her audience from the feminist perspective when she admitted recently “I have been writing to impress old white men. Countless decisions I’ve made about what to write and how to write it have been in acquiescence to the opinions of the white male literati.”

That’s taking my commentary to an ideological extreme I didn’t initially intend, but the illustration is apt; we are living in the age of identity wherein, for better or for worse, no matter your race, gender or sexuality and despite being legally equal in most ways, many still don’t feel equal, and the result of that, is a growing hyper-awareness of our differences, dividing us into ever smaller audiences. Critics ignore that reality at their own risk.

Tim Parks is another critic who is open about his awareness of, and concern for, his audience. He utilized a good illustration to talk about the issues inherent to critical bias and our rather shoddy awareness of it in an essay for The New York Review of Books, positing how useful “a brief account of how we came to hold the views we do on books, or at least how we think we came to hold them,” would be for a reader. (He specifically mentioned the usefulness of a picture of a critics childhood bookshelf in that regard, implying therefore how important the books we read as children are to our critical genesis.)

So here’s my question, the quandary I find myself in as all of these ideas float around in my head: if the saving grace of criticism lies in its relatability, the space in which it adds value, a communal-sharing of opinion, and if critics are becoming more aware and open concerning this fact thanks to current concerns, meaning that critical awareness of such is occurring at the same time as we divide into smaller and smaller audiences, hyper-aware of our spokespeople, what are the ramifications of critics and audiences who are increasingly seeking each other, and perhaps only each other, out?  How do we encourage more transparency amongst spokespeople at the same time as we maintain a diversity of opinion? What are the consequences of increasingly divided audiences who are increasingly exposed only to those who share their own views of the world?

The triple-threat of the death of traditional journalism, rise of non-traditional media and our postmodern, revisionist analysis of all that came before, seem to combine in this bizarre paradox: the beauty of a renewed awareness of the importance of transparency and representation, in contrast to the contemporary danger of audiences drastic under-exposure to the ideas of others.

Jefferson’s Negroland is a lot of things, it’s a cultural history, it’s a memoir, it’s criticism but it is also a lovely evocation of perception; an aggressive yet civil reminder that we are all different and rarely take into account, or attempt to understand, those who may have been raised, reared, educated, differently than ourselves, and whose perception of the world and the things in it are therefore different. It’s also a case study in how a critic can powerfully reach disparate audiences without forsaking her own identity and it’s seeming success across a variety of audiences is encouraging. Jefferson, perhaps inadvertently, seems to offer a new critical alternative; a highly personal, yet globally relevant criticism.

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