Ralph Ellison On Writing For An Audience
In 1955, Ralph Ellison sat down for an interview with The Paris Review. A portion of the interview focused on whether or not Ellison, an African-American, believed Invisible Man to be a protest novel.
Ellison didn’t necessarily see the book that way, as he didn’t see a distinction between art and protest. The conversation turns to the responsibility of the African-American writer when much of his audience will be white.
I love what Ellison has to say about this:
Interviewer: But still, how is the Negro writer, in terms of what is expected of him by critics and readers, going to escape his particular need for social protest and reach the “universal” you speak of?
Ellison: If the Negro, or any other writer, is going to do what is expected of him, he’s lost the battle before he takes the field. I suspect that all the agony that goes into writing is borne precisely because the writer longs for acceptance—but it must be acceptance on his own terms. Perhaps, though, this thing cuts both ways: the Negro novelist draws his blackness too tightly around him when he sits down to write—that’s what the antiprotest critics believe—but perhaps the white reader draws his whiteness around himself when he sits down to read. He doesn’t want to identify himself with Negro characters in terms of our immediate racial and social situation, though on the deeper human level identification can become compelling when the situation is revealed artistically. The white reader doesn’t want to get too close, not even in an imaginary recreation of society. Negro writers have felt this, and it has led to much of our failure.
Too many books by Negro writers are addressed to a white audience. By doing this the authors run the risk of limiting themselves to the audience’s presumptions of what a Negro is or should be; the tendency is to become involved in polemics, to plead the Negro’s humanity. You know, many white people question that humanity, but I don’t think that Negroes can afford to indulge in such a false issue. For us, the question should be, what are the specific forms of that humanity, and what in our background is worth preserving or abandoning.
Ellison makes some excellent points. Even outside of issues of race, the point here is simply–you can’t write for an audience. When you write for an audience, you lose yourself.
I think it’s smart to keep your audience in mind. For instance, I always try to remember that, even though I’m an American–and many of my readers are as well–there’s still a heavy portion of my audience that lives outside the U.S. There’s a balance there, but I still have to be myself when I write.
Your “audience” will connect with you much quicker when you are being yourself, instead of writing something that you think they want to hear.
Excellent writing advice from Ralph Ellison. By the way, Invisible Man is an outstanding novel.
What do you take from Ellison’s comments?
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)