Truth, Beauty, and Writing for Everyone

KING: But you will not again write just for yourself?

ROWLING: I will always write just for myself.

—J.K. Rowling, interview with Larry King, 20 October 2000

"There is a fine line, and it’s growing finer, between writing what is true, what is beautiful, what is Art, and writing what can sell, what a voracious market devours. So much of what the market produces leaves those of us questing for truth through beauty nauseated and weary."—Mr. Pond, Core Magic, Art's Caprice

I have one particular publishing industry truism which I do not hesitate to challenge (to be fair, it may not be meant quite as exclusively as it can be taken.) In last week's addition to our diablogue, Mr. Pond reminded me of it with this comment:

"One point on which Jenna and I entirely agree is that there must be a wider aim [in?] writing fiction than simply catering to the existing market."

That thought hadn't put itself into so many words in my mind, but yes, I do agree with that. And it is to wider aims that I look in contradicting the aphorism "Know your market and write for it."

Oh, I think about that. Mr. Pond says, and I concur, that "To a certain extent, if we want to write at all we have to pay attention to what the market is doing." I can reasonably quantify my book into genre and name a primary market.

But while I think my book is marketable to girls ages 14-17, I do not write toward that group as a demographic. What troubles me most about the aphorism is that too much focus on what the members of a target audience (especially that target audience) have in common makes it easy to miss what they have in common with everybody else. As C.S. Lewis said in his essay On Three Ways of Writing for Children, "I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children's story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's story." The same could definitely be said for teenagers' stories.

Most of my understanding of how to write for teenaged girls comes from not from knowing dozens of them—though after having been in youth ministry, they're not exactly unknown to me—nor from having been one, but from the part of me that hasn't changed since I was one of them, that won't change except to grow. And I write to that. I write for myself, for the part of myself that I believe to be universal. I write for my own sense of eucatastrophe, towards the spiritual experience I understand—the sort of thing, in short, that I would like to read.

I think that when we write for that part of ourselves, we write for everyone. Regardless of the number of people who read and love our tales, be it little or great, among them will be teenagers and grandparents, believers and unbelievers, liberals and conservatives, and everyone in between, because there are some things that all of us have in common.

The goal is not to please every person on every point—that's impossible—but to offer comfort, satisfaction and hope to anyone who goes, as Mr. Pond put it, "questing for truth through beauty" with the art we've created. If I've read Mr. Pond rightly, one of the strongest points of agreement between us is that the purpose of good storytelling is to offer things of that nature.

Readers sicken quickly on tales in which beauty is cheapened and truth irrelevant—or vice versa; too often, stories aiming to teach something or make a point wind up cheapening truth and making beauty irrelevant.

Writing and reading are two ways of following the quest, and the quest is a commonality that no demographic can contain. For that reason, I think little more of the market-specific target audience than of any other reader. My target audience, oh friends, is you and me.

P.S. Mr. Pond plans to post another installment today, so be sure to watch his blog.

Previous conversation:

Me: On Breaking Rules
Mr. Pond: Core Magic, Art's Caprice
Me: Reading and Writing: The Stories that Mattered Most
Mr. Pond: Momentary Editing, parts 1 and 2
Me: How Not to Write


  1. great ideas and discussion Jenna! I'm loving how you're wrestling with these questions.

  2. Thanks, Jana! I'm glad you're enjoying it. :) It's great thinking these things through.


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