Guest contributor: Jim Lang

Bad Advice Wednesday: Waiting for an Audience

categories: Cocktail Hour


ORWELLReaders of Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour, I need some bad advice.  I have just completed the copyedits for my forthcoming book, which means all that remains will be to check the proofs and create the index. Those are pain-in-the-ass jobs, but don’t require much intellectual or emotional investment.  All of the heavy lifting, the drafting and revising and editing, have been completed at this point.

So now here I am attempting to launch the new project.  In one way of the other, this project will involve a reappraisal and appreciation of the work of one of our most famous writers of the 20th century, George Orwell.  I want to rescue him from Animal Farm and 1984 (which is not to say they are not great books, as they are) and help recover the George Orwell that I think really matters to our modern age: the man who worked and lived among the poor, wrote eloquently about the daily humiliations and injustices of poverty, and believed that nature had the power to rescue us from the economic inequality.  It’s an Orwell that his most devoted readers will know well, but that the average reader of his work has likely never encountered, or only knows through the descriptions of the proles in 1984 and the working livestock in Animal Farm.

I believe in this project, and I want to write it.  I have been reading Orwell’s entire corpus from start to finish (more than 8,000 pages), as well as biographies and criticism, and I believe I can write the hell out of this book.  Self-confidence has never been a problem for me.

But I’m paralyzed. The question I can’t seem to answer is this: who is my audience?  Am I writing this for my fellow academics, to offer a scholarly analysis of how and why 1984 and Animal Farm supplanted the work that Orwell was known for largely in his lifetime?  (This is a fascinating tale which involves, at least partly, an effort by the CIA to promote books that supported American values, including Orwell’s two most famous novels.)  Or am I writing for it my fellow readers, to help them recognize that the Orwell they love (or perhaps hate) has so much more to say to them than “Big Brother is Watching You!” and “Four legs good, two legs bad!” A book along these lines would fall into a genre that has been ably populated by many other writers, including none other than this site’s own David Gessner, in All the Wild That Remains, or Andrew Kaufman in Give War and Peace A Chance.  This version of the book will begin with my re-discovery of Orwell’s work in a Paris bookshop, a writ-small version of the eye-opening experience I hope to give to readers.

When I was first learning to write and submit my work for publication, I recognized quickly that the fastest route to seeing your work in print was to familiarize yourself with a magazine or newspaper, and then write an article specifically tailored to its audience. I do this all the time now; I never write an essay unless I know the publication to which I will be submitting it at the very start of the process. I learned this again with the publication of my first books: you had to identify your potential audience very specifically if you wanted a publisher to take a chance on you.

So a part of me wants to be very clear with myself about my audience before I draft a single word. And yet another part of me thinks I will figure out my audience as I write.  (That part of me, however, isn’t thinking about how frustrating it will be when I figure it out halfway through and have to start again from scratch.)  I had hopes that writing about this dilemma in my journal would help me tap into my inner muse and sort it out, but after many dozens of journal entries focused on the same question I have determined that my inner muse is an idiot.

And so, dear readers, your bad advice please.  Plunge ahead without really knowing my audience, or continue to sit here and dither until I figure it out?  Or—and I hope there is an “or”—some third alternative?  What am I missing here?  Do you have your audience locked in before your begin a book project?  Or do you let things flow for a while and see what happens?

Jim Lang is the author of Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty (Harvard UP, 2013). Visit him at or @LangOnCourse.

  1. Ben Steelman writes:

    Who’s the Orwell audience? Disgruntled progressives. (Folks forget he was a socialist.) Anglophiles. People who love analysis and damn good writing, the kind of people who like Joan Didion and Mary Karr and Alexandra Fuller — people who hate doctrinaire essays in which you can tell exactly where it’s going to end up from the very start. People who like words that cut like a knife and change the way you view the world. Such, such are the joys …

  2. Jincy Willett writes:

    Me too. My first thought was “millennials,” a word I never use, but meaning “people much younger than me who need to know about Orwell.” (I’m assuming you’ll be giving a nod to Politics and the English Language, and Such, Such were the Joys, and all that–stuff that should be old hat to everybody but isn’t–Jeez, he is so great.) But, end of the day, I wouldn’t worry about audience. Writing is reaching out the great unknown.

    • Bill writes:

      Oh, I included “Such, Such were the Joys” in my anthology “Creative Nonfiction: The Art of Truth.”

      • Jim Lang writes:

        Here’s a fun little thread in Orwell’s work, from “Such, Such Were the Joys” to 1984.

        From “Such, Such”: “Part of the reason for the ugliness of adults, in a child’s eyes, is that the child is usually looking upwards, and few faces are at their best when seen from below.”

        And from 1984: “[O’Brien] was bending over Winston. His face looked enormous because of its nearness, and hideously ugly because it was seen from below.”

        Orwell had some weird obsessions.

  3. Jim Lang writes:

    I love the idea of writing for one very smart, sympathetic reader. That’s a very kind way to treat yourself as a writer–I’m going to try it!

  4. Bill writes:

    I never thought of my audience before writing anything. Maybe i should. I’m of the one reader school–and that’s who i try to imagine as I write, one very smart, sympathetic reader who loves me and my work. The main thing is to write a good book, surely from that the audience follows! Thanks, Jim…