The Invisible Audience

There exists a problem, endemic to all recorded media, that originally applied to writing alone. It can be summed up in a quote from a famous Luddite:

People like ourselves may see nothing wondrous in writing, but our anthropologists know how strange and magical it appears to a purely oral people—a conversation with no one and yet with everyone. What could be stranger than the silence one encounters when addressing a question to a text? What could be more metaphysically puzzling than addressing an unseen audience, as every writer of books must do? And correcting oneself because one knows that an unknown reader will disapprove or misunderstand?

NEIL POSTMAN

The writer gives his words to an audience that is unknowable. The talent of writing therefore rests on the ability of the writer to anticipate the reaction of the reader, without having any established knowledge about them.

Technology has allowed this intractable issue to bleed into the other arts, starting with painting, sculpture, and architecture, and eventually music and drama. Any medium that allows context to be shared across space and time will, one way or another, have to address the invisible audience.

That audience consists of one’s peers and contemporaries at first, but in time it will also include generations not yet born and civilizations the present artist cannot conceive of.

Keeping in mind that knowing the personality and sensibilities of future generations is impossible, how can an author (or artist of any discipline) ever succeed in his endeavor? It appears to be an exercise in futility.

Cheating the Impossible

Guessing the sensibility of your audience is not possible. It should not be attempted.

Yet we see many authors, throughout history, who have been able to produce multiple works that resonate with audiences across time. Surely, this cannot be the result of blind luck. The range of possible personalities is functionally infinite, and the domain of possible artistic expression is just as endless. That multiple artists have mapped a resonance from their own time to the present day cannot be the result of coincidence. The laws of probability would not allow so many statistical miracles in a single world.

Is there some trick, used by the best artists, that evens the odds? Is there a formula for getting a message across, regardless of the circumstances of the audience? Such a convenience would allow an author to ignore the infinite and contradictory possibilities of what might repulse an audience.

Mostly because it allows the writer to ignore the audience altogether.

The Only Thing You have to Give

There is one word, above all others, that appears again and again in the lore of writers. It is passed down like a hallowed artifact from the ancients down until today. Every great author has used this word to describe the best writing. It is the trade secret, the ace in the hole.

Naturally, this word is found abundantly in famous quotes from writers and in writing advice from every age. The quality that this word describes is always a welcome guest, received with honor by the invisible audience, regardless of the world or era that audience lives in.

That word is “authentic”.

If I were to use a recent example, it would be the following:

An artist’s only responsibility is to be true and authentically yourself.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA

Ultimately, the author cannot give the audience what it needs, because he has no way of anticipating what those needs will be. Neither Aesop nor Arthur Conan Doyle understood the complexities that the information age would bring upon the world. Goethe and Shelley didn’t have anything to tell a post-world-war society.

Yet their art endures. Why?

Because, though they could not give us what we need, they opted instead to give us the one and only thing they could give: themselves.

I guarantee Chaucer was not thinking of you when he wrote The Canterbury Tales.

I guarantee Emily Dickinson was not trying to please you when writing her poems.

I guarantee Aesop didn’t give a hoot about what internet people in their flying machines would think of his fables.

Instead, they created avatars of their own personality which have endured to this day not because they catered to the tastes of our society or circumstances, but because they were true to themselves.

As another author once said:

Wear your heart on the page, and people will read to find out how you solved being alive.

GORDON LISH

The audience may be unknowable, but they are still people. And the one thing people are always interested in…is people. The only thing you can give them is you. But then, that’s all you need to give them.

If you can do that, you have a chance to create something that will last forever.