David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Who Do You Write For?

If you’re a novelist or short story writer or poet or any other kind of dabbler in the written word, who do you write for? Who is your audience?

Keep in mind that your words are not immortal. Your words will eventually be forgotten. There will come a time — maybe in ten years, maybe in ten thousand — when everything you’ve ever written will be utterly forgotten. But don’t fret; you’re in august company. You, me, Frank Herbert, William Gibson, John Barth, Charles Dickens, Homer, Jesus, Napoleon, Bush (both of them), Clinton (both of them), King Solomon, Da Vinci: every one of us, all of our words, all of our deeds, all of our thoughts will eventually be wiped out of existence and forgotten. It’s a sobering thought, but it’s the truth.

So do you simply attempt to reach the greatest number of readers? Is it simply a game of quantity, touching the most lives that you possibly can?

If your goal is to positively influence the most lives you possibly can, don’t bother writing fiction. Sure, there are novels that have had beneficial effects on society. To Kill a Mockingbird. Invisible Man. The Jungle. But you’re more likely to have a beneficial effect for society working at Amnesty International or the American Heart Foundation or your local homeless shelter. You’re more likely to change people’s lives as a psychologist or an M.D. or a high school guidance counselor.

But let’s just assume that you’ve got the itch to make art (or that you already satisfy the do-gooder itch in your day job). Why bother practicing a dying art like that of novel writing?

Let’s look at the numbers. If your novel sells 15,000 copies, it’s considered a success. If it sells 50,000 copies, a monumental success. If it sells 500,000 copies and becomes a staple of universities and book clubs for decades to come, it will have succeeded beyond anyone’s hopes or expectations. But think about this: nearly 2 million people saw the Ashton Kutcher film Dude, Where’s My Car? on its opening weekend.

Ah, you think, but there’s a big difference between wasting two hours watching a popcorn flick and spending several days reading a novel. One is an ephemeral experience, a pleasure of the moment; the other is an immersion in a work of art, an active intellectual debate.

But wait: if Dude, Where’s My Car? is such a transient cotton-candy experience, why do millions of people buy it on DVD to have in their permanent libraries? In fact, unless you’re Dan Brown or J.K. Rowling, more people have purchased the Dude, Where’s My Car? DVD than will ever read your novel. (And of course, even J.K. Rowling has to contend with the fact that millions more people will see the uninspired Chris Columbus film adaptations than will ever read her books.)

So perhaps you’re assuming that as a novelist, your work will stand the test of time long enough to reach a large swath of peoples and cultures and traditions. Could be. I doubt that our great-grandchildren will have the foggiest clue who Ashton Kutcher is, but I bet they’ll have heard of Robert Heinlein.

But if you’re writing for posterity, how long is long enough? Do you really think your novel will be of any relevance to people living three hundred years from now? And, honestly, why would you care what complete strangers in some hypothetical future think of your book? You won’t be around to hear their cheers. You won’t be around to see what your book has inspired.

Think that the real audience you write for is yourself? I don’t buy it. Art by definition requires an audience, or else it’s simply masturbation. Whether you’re painting a picture or singing a song or acting a part, you’re communicating something to someone. That’s especially true of writing, where your medium is language — it’s sole purpose is communication.

Perhaps you think you’re writing for nature, you’re simply giving something back to the universe. Bullshit: the universe isn’t listening to what you say, and it doesn’t care.

Writing for a select group of family and friends? Fine… but then why bother finding a publisher? Start a blog.

So… who do you write for?

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  1. madmeim on February 13, 2007 at 5:20 am  Chain link

    I am interested in writing a short story, how long do you think the minimum length required for the short story in order to be published? And how do I get a publisher? And how they charge?

  2. David Louis Edelman on February 13, 2007 at 7:45 pm  Chain link

    Sorry, madmein, you are asking the wrong guy about short stories. I have only ever finished one to my satisfaction. They paid me $50 for it back in 1995.

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