When Yeats wondered what it would be like to write for his ‘own race and the reality’ he constructed, as a paradigm of that reality, a comfortably-off, middle-class, tweed-wearing fly-fisherman, the kind of man, in other words, who was extremely unlikely to bother his arse about the poetry of W.B. Yeats.
Why, other than for class loyalty, he should have chosen such an unlikely audience has always puzzled me. In the previous verse of ‘The Fisherman’ he had dismissed various potential readers (‘the reality’) – the man who had stolen Maud Gonne from him (no question, if McBride had not turned up Maud would never have looked at another man besides poor Willie); poor dead John Synge who would have been the ideal audience but for a touch of TB; various socialists, satirists, and, of course, the City Council philistines who turned down Hugh Lane’s brilliant idea for a gallery built across the Liffey in the style of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, or more aptly as it turned out, the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. But, in fact, this is ‘the reality’ of his actual readership, not someone going at dawn to cast his flies in the lakes of Connemara.
But most writers are asked about this impulse to imagine an ideal audience at one point or another (usually at several points) in their writing life. It’s as if people are inclined to take Yeats’ at his word, always a mistake in my view. American publishers, for example, can be quite direct about that it. ‘What is your target audience’ is a question on many of their ‘author questionnaires’. There’s no use telling them, as I would like to do, that the very idea terrifies me. Interviewers ask it, sometimes disguised by formulas such as ‘Who do you write for?’. Audiences sometimes come up with the question at readings.
What is my target audience?
Firstly, I don’t think it’s advisable to think of an audience as a target: although Yeats won a Nobel Prize doing it, it’s a trick that can’t be repeated too often.
Secondly, I’ve always thought that an ideal reader would be one who had read everything I have read, who had the same life experiences, the same memories, the same hopes and dreams. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that there’s only one person in the world who fits that bill: yours truly. And that’s just boring. Incestuous even. Or at least onanistic.
So I never think of an audience when I write. I try not to imagine who might read one of my books. Worse again, I never imagine a critic. Instead I try to stay focused on what makes the words work together. I trust that if the words work the readers will come. Perhaps they won’t come in large numbers, but that has never been a high priority for me. Instead of people or numbers, I think of years – I try to imagine that publishers will continue to publish my books into the future so that I can continue to write them. The writing itself is what I love most.
But perhaps it would be good for all of us who became writers in the days when Ireland couldn’t bear too much reality, when political writing was regarded as bad taste, to take a leaf out of Yeats’ book and to focus on the actually existing Irish state as opposed the Ireland of the 1950s, or the Ireland of our childhoods, or the Ireland of our dads digging spuds on a sunny day long long ago before we picked up our pens to describe the process.
So what is the ‘reality’ of Ireland today? It’s the reality of housing crises, of austerity, of the pandemic, of rising income inequality, of dodgy developers and vulture funds and bad planning, of the climate crisis, of the anti-vaxxers and the xenophobes and Irexiters. We can’t engage with that reality by writing for the well-dressed fly-fisherman or his modern equivalent. But maybe Yeats’ impulse was not wrong: maybe we too should imagine someone who is unlikely to be a reader of poetry or stories or even novels, the kind of person who stops at the sports pages or Births Marriages and Deaths, the kind of person who would never buy a literary magazine or read the review pages. because there’s a real and exciting ‘reality’ to face here, an Ireland that is changing as rapidly as it was in Yeats’ time and which also remains timeless. There is a beauty to be found in change as Yeats himself remarked elsewhere, and writers should be there to capture it.