Audience of the Frozen Sea

by Mike Duran · 1 comment

Frozen Heart by Sephirothsdx on Deviant Art

“Write for your audience.”

This is common knowledge among authors, a staple of advice at most writer’s conferences. Know your audience. Write to their tastes. If they like certain tropes, certain cover designs, certain characters types, certain resolutions, even certain length stories, write to them. Give them what they want.

When it comes to writing to market, this is good advice. But what if your market, the audience you’re aiming at, is frigid?

Surrealist, Franz Kafka, once said something that’s always stuck with me,

“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”

Apart from the stark imagery this quote evokes, there’s two reasons why I love this approach to writing. One, it accurately describes the human condition. Our hearts are like a “frozen sea within us.” Secondly, it perfectly describes the impact a tale can have upon us. A good story can be like an “axe,” pummeling the frosty shell that entombs our heart.

Of course, not everyone views their audience as existing in such a grim state. For the most part, it’s right (and accurate) to see our readers as good people who simply want to be entertained, thrilled, chilled, or inspired. Stories needn’t always have some profound existential aim. However, underlying our desire for simple entertainment is a human condition that often requires more drastic intervention.

Interestingly, one of the reasons that Jesus claimed to speak in parables was because of His listeners spiritual density. Parables were a way to bypass their calloused intellect and/or biases and stir something deeper, more primal. (I go into more detail about this in THIS POST about “parabolic storytelling.”)

This is one of the reasons I’m so fond of Flannery O’Connor. The Southern Gothicist was known for stories that shocked the senses, tales containing stark caricatures and awful irony. O’Connor’s approach to storytelling was borne out of her perspective of human nature. She writes,

“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience. When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock — to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” — Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, Occasional Prose

O’Connor saw some of her audience as “hostile,” not to her, per se, but to her underlying “beliefs.” Her readers were nearly deaf and blind, spiritually speaking. Their hearts were a frozen sea. Their moral intuition, like all of us, had been calloused by selfishness and self-righteousness. As such, O’Connor wasn’t intent to simply entertain her readers. She wanted to “shock” them and “shout” at them using “large and startling figures.” She wrote for the Audience of the Frozen Sea. Which means she wrote with an axe.

Not everyone writes with an axe. Some write with a scalpel, others with a sparkler or a paint brush. It all depends on who you write for. How you view your audience determines what instrument you choose to write with. Me? I tend to write for the Audience of the Frozen Sea.  Which means I always keep an axe in my arsenal.

R.J. Anderson August 26, 2017 at 4:59 PM

This is common knowledge among authors, a staple of advice at most writer’s conferences. Know your audience. Write to their tastes. If they like certain tropes, certain cover designs, certain character types, certain resolutions, even certain length stories, write to them. Give them what they want.

This is terrible advice and I’m glad I’ve never heard it, at a writer’s conference or otherwise. Certainly it’s a good idea to keep your audience’s general interests in mind when you’re writing specifically for a particular cultural or religious or social or age group, but only so that you don’t write things which would merely bore and irritate them (such as writing a children’s picture book about property easements, or an “adult” novel about how your daughter adopted her cute little puppy) and so you remember to focus on the kinds of things that will intrigue and resonate with them in some way. But apart from that, letting your audience dictate the content, format, or resolution of your stories is the kiss of creative death. Not only for authors, whose imaginative scope becomes cruelly limited by the constraints of “what readers want” (as if we authors know!), but for readers themselves, who often don’t realize they want or will enjoy a particular story until it’s in front of them, and who often think they want certain things out of a story only to find their enjoyment muted by the knowledge that the author gave them nothing they didn’t expect or couldn’t have imagined for themselves.

The only good reason to write certain tropes, certain characters, certain genres or certain types of endings is because you, the author, love them and are excited about telling a story about them. Even if you think you might be the only person in the universe (spoiler: you aren’t) who feels that way.

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