Monday, March 8, 2010

Who’s Listening?: Audience in Fiction, Wolf Hall

I recently read Walter J. Ong’s essay, “The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction,” in which he analyzes the concept of audience and the relationship of writer to audience. This essay caught my attention because he applies fiction techniques and concepts to essay writing. While this practice is now common, especially within the genre of creative non-fiction, this article was written thirty-five years ago. Perhaps Ong was among the first wave of academics to introduce fiction techniques into non-fiction writing. As I considered his essay, I wondered, though, if his blending was intentional. The reason I was not convinced that he did indeed mean to bring fiction concepts into non-fiction writing is because he backed his analysis of audience in essay with poetry and fiction examples without later coming back to clarify how or why those examples, from fiction, are reasonably applicable to non-fiction. Even though he did not clarify the connection, it was a meaningful one to me. In particular, his discussion of the tradition of fictionalizing audiences, and his assertion that, “A history of the ways audiences have been called on to fictionalize(i) themselves would be a correlative of the history of literary genres and literary works, and indeed of the culture itself.”(ii)

This statement reminded me of John Gardner’s analysis of point of view in contemporary novels. In The Art of Fiction Gardner states that contemporary writers may do anything they like—as long as it works. The writer, for example, my make sudden shifts without alerting the reader to the presence of the shifts; contemporary readers are accustomed to such uniqueness. In support he offers, “That is part of the built-in expectation and pleasure of ‘contemporary’ or at-once-recognizably-innovative art. But in every age, including our own, some literature…uses traditional methods, and here a certain correctness is beyond dismissal.”(iii) Gardner then continues to give an overview of point of view as it relates to audience and asserts that third-person-subjective has limitations and depends too greatly on irony for meaning. He also comments on its additional limitations.

When the fiction is judgmental, and for some reason much third-person subjective fiction is, the writer commits himself to nothing except by irony; he merely exposes the stupidities of mankind; and except insofar as he misses the point, the reader stands apart from the action of the story, watching it critically, like a grumpy old man at a party. …even when the fiction is benevolent, the third-person-subjective point of view can achieve little grandeur. It thrives on intimacy and something like gossip. It peeks through the keyhole, never walk through an open field.(iv)

I disagree with Gardner’s point that third-person-subjective relies too often on irony, achieves little grandeur, and depends upon sentimentality.(v) Perhaps my disagreement stems from the fact that I am one of the many Ong refers to; I am one of the audience members who has unknowingly fictionalized myself and therefore intuitively understand what is expected of me as a reader. Perhaps because third-person-subjective is so common in contemporary fiction, a point Gardner would agree with(vi), I have “grown-up” with it and therefore accept it, understand my role as a reader within it.(vii)

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel is an example of a book that is a reflection of its time. While the setting—Henry VIII’s England, a time period rich in political, spiritual, and human conflict, a long-standing favorite of readers—is not unique, Mantel’s casting of the audience is. Her approach is intimate but not dependent on sentimentality; indeed the very success Mantel’s reversal of Cromwell’s long-standing negative reputation is dependent upon the reader’s emotional connection with him. The intent of writing a novel that will draw readers in and challenge their perceptions of a historical figure is not singularly contemporary but the way in which Mantel has crafted it is. Mantel crafts the story so that the reader is walking side by side with Thomas Cromwell, experiencing his life in real time and accepting whatever is said as truth(viii). For example, after being beat by his father Cromwell has left home, then left the home of his sister, and left Dover:

He adds up what he’s got and what he’s spent. Deduct a small sum for a brief grabble with a lady of the night. Not the sort of thing you could do in Putney, Wimbleton or Mortlake. Not without the Williams family getting to know, and talking about you in Welsh.(ix)

The choice to use a grammatically inconsistent sentence fragment and the use of the word “you” are significant. Both of these choices assume that the reader as audience will 1) accept the non-traditional language use and 2) accept being spoken to directly. Mantel’s successful fictionalization of the audience depends on the acceptance of these factors; she maintains the role of the audience by continuing using both grammatically inconsistent sentence fragments and the word “you” to speak directly to the reader. Consider this reference to the queen’s daughter:

Her own pain-racked little daughter. She may smile, but she doesn’t yield an inch. Julius Cesar would have had more compunction. Hannibal.(x)

And later, very near the end of the novel, following the outburst during court:

The jury had not liked it: you never know what a jury will like.(xi)
The use of grammatically inconsistent sentence fragments and the use of the word “you” run throughout Wolf . These are only two pieces of the whole approach Mantel uses to connect with the audience.

It seems reasonable to me that the dynamics of writer, as person who tells the story, and reader, as the person who accepts the story, do not change, yet the audience as a fictionalized entity does. To me it isn’t a matter of any one approach to reaching the audience being better or of greater value than another; it is simply a matter of difference and change. The selection of point of view and the roles the reader is cast into are examples of such change. If Hilary Mantel had written Wolf Hall in early the 1900’s instead of the early 2000’s, would it have been published? If it were, would it have been prized?

According to Ong, two things are required for the audience to fictionalize itself. One, the writer must cast in his mind a role for the reader, entertainment seeks, for example, and two, the reader must be willing to play the role the writer has cast for him.
Ong, Walter J. “The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction.” Modern Language Association: PMLA 90.1 (January 1975): p14.
Gardener, John. The Art of Fiction. New York: Vintage Books, 1983, p155.
Ibid., pp156-157.
Sentimentality in the sense that the work depends upon emotion to deliver the desired effect rather than on real depth. I believe that is what Gardner means when he writes that third-person-subjective thrives on intimacy; it thrives on the close emotional contact between the character and reader, thus is thrives on unanalyzed emotion.
Gardener, John. The Art of Fiction. New York: Vintage Books, 1983, p156.
This statement is based on Gardner’s literary references in Art of Fiction and in On Becoming a Novelist.
Perhaps this automatic is what Gardner is referring to when he says third-person-subjective, “peeks through the keyhole.”
Mantel, Hilary. Wolf Hall. New York: Henry Holt, 2009, p13.
Ibid., p 372.
Ibid., p 525

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