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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)

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that so far no one has commented on this post. It’s interesting, too, that 57 years after Ellison said that, in our attempts to create a race-blind society, we’re still dealing with the same issues.

    And then there’s that whole thing about whether to write “for” an audience (of many or just one) or not. I agree with you that each writer, especially in fiction, has to find a balance that’s right for them. Obsessing about the issue is ultimately counterproductive. And besides, it takes away from your writing time! 😉


    October 2, 2012
    • Good thoughts. I agree. And, yes, kind of interesting that this post was a bit of a “dud.” I loved reading Ellison’s thoughts.


      October 2, 2012
      • I don’t think this post is a dud at all, it’s just that we’re all, when we get right down to it, still a little (or more than a little) uncomfortable about talking about race. And that’s going to limit the number of responses.


        October 3, 2012
  2. I liked what he said about wrapping ourselves in our blackness or whiteness. Getting through that is the challenge for reading The Invisible Man, but there’s a similar challenge for many of the books on the Time 100 list if you apply the same idea to wrapping ourselves in our feminineness or our masculineness, our leftist or rightist or our religious bent. How hard is it for a writer to put out those non-mainstream truths? How hard is it to read them. The stretch we make is the reward of reading.


    October 2, 2012
  3. Thats about as sound advice as I have ever heard! Great post!


    October 2, 2012
  4. nidhi #

    I love how Ellison has taken political identity and juxtaposed it with humanism. For that matter, identity and expectations entirely. All this could be said for women’s writing as it has evolved over centuries too. Possibly an indicator of more agency to feminist thought simply by virtue of how Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Gloria Steinem (progressively) wrote…good stuff!


    October 3, 2012
  5. I heard an interview recently with George Lucas, famous for directing “Star Wars” about the difficulty of making a film primarily or exclusively about African-American issues. Lucas produced the excellent movie “Redtails,” about a black core of pilots in World War II. Never heard of it? That’s my point. Lucas knew he would be operating at a loss in making the film, but he made it nevertheless. Slowly, very slowly, fiction about African-Americans is finding a limited audience, but we have “miles to go before we sleep.”

    I myself am reminded of the plight of “gay fiction” in finding an audience, or the challenge in being a gay writer, or, conversely, a writer who is gay. These issues just never seem to disappear


    October 3, 2012
  6. I mean to read this novel as I have come across it before and it was reviewed really well. The truth about writing stands, the audience is a by product,not the reason for the writing. I read a cross genres, and believe this to be true. The writing I most enjoy has no self consciousness about itself, and that results in the reader being completely convinced about the world they are in. good blog.


    October 4, 2012
  7. Want to read this!

    Great blog by the way!


    October 11, 2012

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, October 2 and 3, 2012 « cochisewriters
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