Who are you, our happy band of readers? Knowing one’s audience is a key tool of writing: the better you know your audience, the more subtle your jokes can be and the more concise your analysis. You can create a sense of inclusiveness among your readership, or the sense of being part of an in-crowd. If your jokes are too subtle, though, and your analysis too concise, no one will know what you are talking about and you risk alienating this now unhappy audience.
In the DLR’s day jobs, knowledge and familiarity are a particular concern: is Louis Althusser’s concept of ‘interpollation’ dreadfully old hat to you, or do you need a parenthetical clause explaining, hey, you! Kenneth Waltz? Absolute beginners? Do you know what Koolaid is? Eccles cakes? Local references in a non-local world are especially difficult to make calls on. And it gets more difficult as time goes on — edit 15 articles about Guy Debord’s society of the spectacle, and you never want to explain that puppy again.
And how on earth do we, we mostly-happy-but-you-know-some-things-could-be-better-like-the-weather-and-perhaps-the-basic-cost-of-food-and-living people, we writers know who you might be? Part of it is educated guesswork based on your interests if you have come to this page at all, and part of it is essentially solipsism — we think, though we don’t like to consciously think it, you are probably like us.
Some writers create personae that are explicitly designed in relation to their audience. Charlie Brooker of the Guardian has set himself up as the crankier, testier and (so he must think, we assume) sharper version of everyone who reads him. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times explicitly presents himself as ever to the left of his readers, imploringly reaching out to them with reason and passion (and thereby recouping the latter for the leftist preserve — hats off, for Kristof!). But most writers write blind, and in dark rooms, helplessly looking for black cats that — well, actually, are there – and hoping they’ve got the tone and the references right. (Did anyone pick that up? It’s a quote from Charles Darwin about mathematicians, and was used recently by Anthony Huberman as a wilfully unwieldy exhibition title.)
Playing against assumptions is a classic stylistic trick, but it relies on correctly gauging what the reader’s assumptions will be in the first place. These were slightly misjudged in a very interesting piece that Philip Gourevitch, working with Errol Morris, wrote on the extraordinary photos that came out of the Abu Ghraib prison, and the text as a result was misshapen in the end. (Morris was apparently at one time going to make a film on the subject — what happened to that?) Gourevitch and Morris hooked their story on a US soldier, Sabrina Harman, who took the famous image of the hooded, wired man, as well as many others. It sets her up as — literally – a woman ‘who wouldn’t hurt a fly’, and who took the pictures because she just couldn’t believe what was going on at Abu Ghraib. The story ultimately wends on to reveal that she is also the woman grinning and doing a thumbs-up next to the bloodied man in the body bag (remember that one? don’t click on that link to it unless you are prepared to see it, by the way), and, again, in many others as well. This is meant to act as a shock — but we thought she was so nice! — but doesn’t really work; when one starts into a story about Abu Ghraib, no one thinks it’s going to end well. And so the journalistic arch of the story’s structure shows through — maybe because it was co-written — and we are left feeling like the grit the pirouette turns on, that is, our moral outrage, has been exploited. It was a very telling and emotionally odd dance with readers’ prejudices, which the writers seemed to think were red-state and blue-state at once. (And maybe they are.)
The question of one’s audience is particularly key to the web, where people access your site via search engines as much as subscription or sales, meaning one has even less of an idea of who the readers are — even given the web’s gift for quantification. Gawker.com founder Nick Denton, in yet another New Yorker profile, said that the most extraordinary asset of the internet is not that one can read anything for free, but that one can tally the number of hits and traffic to a site. (Which we would like to rebut with Werner Herzog’s remarkable response to the 3D mapping of the Chauvet Cave: “It’s like you are creating the phone directory of Manhattan, four million precise entries, but do they dream? Do they cry at night? What are their hopes? What are their families? We’ll never know from the phone directory.” What a man, what a brain, what a crazily long leash that brain is on.) This is a long way from yesterday’s editorial meeting about whether enough people would get the references in our Michael Clark review, but we wanted to take a moment to say: we’re sorry if you didn’t. We’re blind men over here, we’ve got a scratchy kitten hiding in our plants and we can’t find the bloody light switch.