A Phase of Incestuous Contraction

As a performing artist, here’s a thing I’ve definitely fretted over; doing art only for an audience of people who all do the same thing. Here’s Steve Almond at The New Republic writing from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference (AWP):

But there’s a larger and more unsettling truth. . . one that AWP inadvertently drives home: As a pursuit, literature is in a phase of incestuous contraction. Yes, people still read novels and stories and essays and poems. But today most of those people are also writers.

This was certainly true at the last event I did, a reading at a local bookstore. Every member of the audience, aside from a stray spouse or relative, was a writer.

Here it’s writing and literature, for me it was theatre, and specifically Shakespeare and classical theatre. All the effort, the creativity, the nuance, I knew it was largely lost on the vast majority of the audience. This is not because they were dumb or even uncultured. They just weren’t immersed in the field and the craft like the actors and other practitioners were.

But the tragedy to me was that we would all be agonizing over the smallest details and the most subtle moments, when chances were that almost no one would have been able to tell the difference. I mean, you should see the garbage I’ve seen audiences give standing ovations for.

It was probably a factor in my leaving theatre for politics. I thought that even if normal folks that didn’t know all the ins and outs, they at least got tangible benefits from political work. But I didn’t have the confidence that even our most masterful production of Othello, say, would have meant as much to a general audience to match what we had put in to it. It wasn’t until fellow actors, directors, and other artists came to see it that opinions suddenly had real weight. (And it depends on the person and the product, of course. I’m speaking in broad generalities here.)

I don’t write literature, per se, but I do write essays, and I’m toying with a book of sorts, a kind of memoir of one period of my life. As of now, I want attention from all eyeballs, regardless of the skulls in which they sit. Maybe that would change if this thing ever went anywhere.

But for theatre, it was always a depressing thought to think that we were putting every ounce of ourselves into a piece of work that could only really be appreciated by the few others who also did theatre. I’d hate to think that if I were to be able to write in a more full time capacity that I’d be doing primarily for other writers. Then why bother?

4 thoughts on “A Phase of Incestuous Contraction”

  1. I smell a little confirmation bias – perhaps the people most likely to go up and speak with him enough for him to find out that they’re writers are, themselves writers – also, what is a ‘writer’? If he asks, “How many people here are writers?” should I raise my hand? I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo – does that make me a ‘writer’?
    Similarly – I love the theater, my wife and I get season tickets to both the Broadway Across America series and the Portland Opera, we also go to other plays and shows. Would I count as a ‘theater person’ since I’ve ‘trod the boards’ in a half-dozen amateur productions nearly thirty years ago? Or more recently done some volunteer tech work at a local theater?
    While there may be many who are not as immersed in these respective crafts as even I have been (i.e. not very), I think it’s a long time to bemoan the death of culture – even in a country where ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ still exists.


    1. I think I’m more concerned about what the artists are doing than what the audiences are. I fear that in theatre, for example, we’re really all working too hard to impress each other rather than speak to the general audience. I should have expressed that in this post.


  2. Don’t confuse lack of vocal appreciation for no appreciation. I can tell you I don’t go to theatre much here in DC because I don’t have the budget for it. I guarantee you that the people who do go are very much appreciative. The difference is that people in the trade are more likely to speak up about it. I guarantee you if you don’t put out a good show then you’ll see fewer people attending and buying tickets. Folks are selective with their hard earned money.
    It’s sort of like blog comments. I happen to know you and feel quite comfortable spouting off. But the vast majority of readers are lurkers.


  3. I think Simon’s right. I read voraciously. But attend book readings? That’s just not something I do. If I was a writer, I would do it, because that’s part of the craft. I have friends who are writers and ask my advice constantly, and I encourage them to expose themselves to as much of the behind-the-scenes thought and discourse as possible. But me? Not so much. I’m the audience, not the talent.


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