Saturday, February 21, 2009

A Lesson Before Writing

I remember, quite vividly, sitting in English class discussing literature in which the inevitable question would be raised: "Did the author mean to say this?"

Now, in high school, that question was centered around the author's use of metaphor, imagery, etc. Let's face it: Most of my darling little high schoolers, in the beginning stages of learning how to write themselves, just couldn't fathom intending a metaphor to occur in writing. To them, it was some happy little blessing from the writing gods that they had no control over whatsoever.

In college, this discussion was centered around literary criticism. Did the author mean what we have interpreted as the meaning or theme of the text?

The answer, in high school or college, ultimately becomes this (and I type it apologizing to any former professors who may read this and want to gag on it when they do):

Who gives a damn if the author meant it that way or not? The fact is, what we have--what is published and in our hands--is what we have to work with when we study the literature.

Read the answer again.

One more time.

Have you read it three times, yet? Good.

Now, let's discuss.

The answer to that question is why it is imperative that an author know what he is trying to say, know who his audience is, and work tirelessly to communicate his message to his audience in a manner appropriate to their understanding.


Well, if the author doesn't know his audience, if he doesn't know who he wants to communicate his message to, then he runs the risk of being misinterpreted and misunderstood.

Consider it. Why is "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" such a difficult poem for people to understand, let alone explain? T.S. Eliot himself said he wrote for the educated, and he would have desired to write only for the wittiest of those. Why do most people not "get" cartoons in The New Yorker? The New Yorker isn't written for "most" people. Likewise, why don't we find many high-class followers of Jeff Foxworthy? He isn't for the high-class citizen. Had he marketed himself to them, the jokes would be "You might be a trust-fund baby if..."

We write for our audience, and if we don't know who they are, we won't see success.

After all, if we don't know our audience, we might just end up with this...

...and all the uproar that goes with it.

As I told my friend Dave, the New York Post can scream all day long that they didn't mean for this cartoon to be racist, but that doesn't matter now.

Intent be damned. We have product.

And the product can most definitely be seen as racist. Anyone who knows American history can see and defend that interpretation of this cartoon. White, Black, or Hot Pink with Polka Dots, we should be able to see how this is offensive.

So, Class, some basic rules before writing (or, sketching):

1. Know Thy Audience

2. Know Thy Message

3. (This is the big one) Know how to communicate thy Message to thy Audience EFFECTIVELY and APPROPRIATELY

Seriously, that cartoon (whether intended to be racist or not) is irresponsible.


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