Last week I read responses that my students had written to assigned readings. One of the prompt questions was, "Who is the audience for this essay?" We'd talked in class about how you determine an author's intended audience. We'd talked about by noting where the work was first published, looking at the language, understanding the writer's themes. Still, when it came time to answer this question, most students wrote "African-Americans" for the essay written by a black man and "Latinos" for an essay written by a Mexican-American woman. I was a little shocked by their answers.
Both essays were literacy narratives that explored the writers' relationship with written and spoken language. I'm pretty sure the authors thought that they were writing about universal themes that many people could relate to. Yet, here was a group of college freshmen who believed that these writers spoke to an audience that was determined strictly by race.
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Driving home at night I'm listening to the radio. Terry Gross, the host of "Fresh Air" announces that Jonathan Franzen will be the guest on her show. I let out a big sigh. I've heard the latest Twitterverse controversy about Franzen: Does he get unnecessary hype because he is a man? I'm tired. I've been working for twelve hours. I'm a woman writer that has yet to publish a book. Franzen is everywhere in the media. I'm thinking that this interview will be a downer.
Before I can change the station, I hear Gross ask him about the controversy. The way she phrases her question makes me cringe. She says something like "as if you're responsible for your success." Franzen responds. He says that the criticism of him has not been in the form of ad hominem attacks. He says it is a feminist critique about how we read and understand certain writers. He says he agrees with the critique.
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I'm reading a review of Freedom that talks about Franzen's sharp insights into human nature. The example used is this quote from the book, "Then she waited, with parted lips and a saucy challenge in her eyes, to see how her presence--the drama of being her--was registering."
I remember that Terry Gross also quoted this description during her interview. I read and re-read the quote. I want to see the magic that they all see. It is hard to judge an excerpt without the context, but I just don't notice anything exceptional about the prose or even the mocking use of the word "saucy." It's a funny description of a character, but is it an acute observation into human nature? What if it appeared in a romance novel? Would the observation then be called brilliant?
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Carleen Brice writes on her blog about the release of Getting to Happy, Terry McMillan's sequel to Waiting to Exhale. She remembers how McMillan's success inspired her to become an author. One commenter recalls how many people of different races were reading WTE when it first came out. I remember that, too. I remember that the person who first told me about the book was a girlfriend who is white.
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I'm reading an essay by the poet Sarah Vap. It's about how readers and writers connect. In it, she writes, "If everything goes well in the reading of a poem--that is, if I have arrived at the poem with an opening in my heart and my mind to my own historical language, and if the author has written the poem with an opening in his or her heart and mind to their historical language--and if bridges have been crossed by both of us so that we intersect somewhere on the big continuum of language--then, I believe, the author and I will meet in the space of the poem. And in this meeting, our private histories with language will change forever. And so, because of this, we will also have to change."
I'm realizing how much baggage or "historical language" we all bring to reading any piece of writing. It really is a miracle when we create words that connect with an audience.