Saying the Unthinkable

As writers, we are told not to talk down to our audience. We are told to assume that they are intelligent, and that whatever we can understand as writers, they can also understand. I would like to agree with this, as it would make me seem less elitist than I’m going to appear, but it is factually incorrect, and I value facts more than opinions.

This applies to many areas and starts with the most basic proposition; that a significant proportion of a country’s population can’t or won’t read to an adult standard. This is not intended to be offensive, it is simply an objective statement. The primary reason that books that are essentially teenage fiction are the best-selling, is that those are the books most of the population can read. I have a copy of Infinite Jest which I’m reading, slowly, and it occurred to me that a significant number of my friends would be incapable of reading a book with such complex sentences and paragraphs, and even more would consider the book too much effort. I’m not trying to say that such people are stupid, I’m trying to take a lesson about writing from this. If your fiction requires a higher reading level than that of a teenager, you are cutting a large portion of readers from your potential readership, and the higher the reading level, the more exaggerated this effect becomes.
Some books cut their market by requiring knowledge, of history, or science or politics. Some of them demand a knowledge of previous literature to be fully understood. Again, these things are no fault of the reader, but they are something a writer has to understand.

We are also told to write clearly, and to make sure we are understood, but we are counter advised that we should not spoon feed the audience, we should trust that they will understand the intention. I side with clarity on this one, there’s no issue in my mind with making things obvious, and my favourite support for this point is the film, Starship Troopers. If you watch the film, you will quickly notice that the film is a satire of militarism, is intentionally badly acted and cheesy. What you will not think is what many critics of the film thought upon its release, that it was a pro-fascist piece of art. Apparently, even Starship Troopers needed to be more obvious in its satire, and if that’s true then all art does.

To bring this together, I do agree with the general statement, do not talk down to your audience. My difference is that I think a writer has to have a good grasp of their intended audience, an understanding of that audience’s reading level, the kind of references they will understand and the problems they will encounter when deciphering the themes of a novel. When a writer knows that, they can adapt the fiction to the level of their audience. It’s not talking down, it’s talking at the correct level.

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