We are not writing for National Geographic

Writers who are not white sometimes struggle with this particular issue. How much consideration should we give to the audience? How much of the culture we are writing about should we translate for the reader? Can we assume the reader knows the definition of a salwar kameez? Must I explain that ammachi means maternal grandmother? That cousin brother is a male cousin and not in any way incestuous?

Authors, take heart. There’s a simple solution to all of this. Just assume no one will ever read your story. (The ability to do this is one of the gifts of repeated rejection) Write for an audience of one and let that one be you.

There are two good reasons for this approach. First, publication is ANGST-RIDDEN and something every author looks forward to with gritted teeth. The only part of the process you are sure to enjoy is the writing. So if you aren’t amusing yourself, what’s the point?

Second, it’s a fool’s errand to write with any particular audience in mind. Readers are special snowflakes, each with their own life experiences, culture, and ways of seeing the world. You are never going to be able to curate your work in such a way that each and every reader fully understands every word.

Remember, you are writing a story, not a National Geographic article. If you start defining every little thing, the pace will grind to a halt and that’ll be the end of the reader’s attention. Focus on the characters and the story. Include nothing that the characters would not themselves think. Forget the reader.

I promised politics in the last blog post. Here is it. When editors italicize salwaar kameez or idiyappam they are not only doing so for the benefit of an imagined reader, they are imagining a very specific reader. And herein lies the political horse manure. Because guess what skin colour that reader has? Guess what language he speaks? Guess his gender (hahah. trick question). Guess his sexuality.

News flash! Readers are all kinds of people. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that good stories, told well, transcend cultures, borders, ethnicity, language, and time. Otherwise, how do you explain the enduring appeal of Shakespeare, Austen, Jesus’ parables, or Lord Buddha’s life story? Or the fact that I have been reading Tolstoy for decades and still only have the foggiest idea what a samovar is.

Most of the words in Michael Crummey’s Galore are a mystery to me but it’s still one of my favourite books of all time. His writing is better for being true to the characters, for his commitment to their dialect. And listen, if Crummey’s not including a glossary for words like dunch and skerry and slut lamp, then neither am I and neither should you. Shake off the tyranny of the single reader. Focus on the characters. Remember: Character reigns supreme.

ps. Have you got a completed draft of a novel that could benefit from another pair or eyes? I moonlight as a manuscript evaluator and to be perfectly honest, I’m extremely good at giving thorough and constructive feedback. Character and dialogue, plot and pacing, it’s all my jam. I’m taking bookings for 2020 so get in touch for more info or a quote.