Fictionalizing in Fictitious Spaces: Virtual Non-places Invite Non-audiences
Walter Ong’s “The Audience is Always a Fiction” chronicles the “relationship, of the so-called ‘audience’ to writing as such, to the situation that inscribed communication establishes and to the roles that readers as readers are consequently called on to play” by referencing works by Hemingway, Sidney, Chaucer, Lyly, Nashe, and many other notable writers to illustrate how each negotiates a relationship with his intended audience through varying degrees of authorial distance (55). Ong uses these examples to support his claim that a writer must “make his readers up, fictionalize them” (59). Each of these instances substantiates his expanded claim that audiences must also fictionalize themselves, assume their (collective but individual) roles in the “game of literacy…to conform themselves to the projections of the writers they read” (60). This dual exchange of fictionalized identities is necessary because the writer and reader do not benefit from the traditional “two-way” communication of oral narrative, in which “a real audience controls the narrator’s behavior immediately” (66). As both work at communication from isolated positions, each must be cast into and accept an assigned role in order for writing and reading acts to bear fruitful (70).
Lisa Ede and Andrea Lundsford call Ong’s theory of audience invention “audience invoked” and question Ong’s comprehensive application of writer-reader relationships as fictionalized constructs, claiming it oversimplifies “the potential range and diversity of both oral and written communication situations” (83). While I certainly agree that a writer must imagine an audience and it seems reasonable that to do so effectively a writer must also compose with that “fictional” audience in mind—incidentally, this is a common technique embedded in Creative Writing curriculum—I, too, question the generalizability and transferability of Ong’s theory, its practicality as a teaching methodology.
An advocate of Ong’s insights into writing as a technology and a tool that separates writer, reader, and product, I do have my reservations about the application of “fictionalizing” an audience as it applies to online instructional practice, particularly as it relates to freshman composition students. For one, Ong’s examples are all experienced writers whose works are published. Analyzing published works reputed as literature already implies an author with a mature understanding of audiences. I’m not sure the fictionalizing process as Ong describes it is transferable to the composition classroom broadly and especially not the online composition classroom specifically. Many students in freshman composition courses do not yet possess the degree of nuanced understanding required to effectively enact Ong’s fictionalization process.
Another of my reservations considers Ong’s theory as it relates to modalities of instruction. The online environment is a problematizing space that, perhaps, too readily fictionalizes its participants in ways that confuse and complicate the writer-reader relationship. For example, the internet constitutes what Marc Auge calls a non-place, which he describes, among other things, as a space “in which individuals are supposed to interact only with texts, whose proponents are not individuals but ‘moral entities’ or institutions” (78). From this ideological perspective, I posit that students working in such spaces develop a sense of non-audience. Such an audience would not need much consideration. The author of these “texts” that form the communication directives of non-places need only provide the script of use that regulates, prohibits, informs, and labels (77-78). The result of such unidirectional communication is not a useful fictionalization of audience but a treatment of audience as passive, static, and uniform.
Incorporating this additional theoretical lens as a complicating agent, I ask the following questions:
Q1: What happens to the rules of “the game of literacy” in a space designed for transient communication practices?
Q2: If the audience is a fiction, how does the writer know how to conceptualize it? Is this exercise supposed to be intuitive? Will one, two, ten peer reviewers correctly represent the collective reader?
Q3: Does the internet assist or counteract the efforts of a writer to fictionalize its audience?
These questions aside, Ong’s theory does provide a rationale for offering additional and more overt instruction of writer-audience awareness in the composition classroom. An instructor operationalizing Ong’s theory might focus on teaching students the purpose behind and desired outcome of addressing fictional audiences. In online writing courses, the instructor of audience as fiction may emphasize appropriate approaches to fictionalization as it relates to situation and context.
Ong continues to challenge my theories about writing in technologized spaces and my understanding of the relationships between writers and readers.
Reference (Not in CT)
Auge, Marc. Non-Places: An Introduction to Supermodernity. Trans. John Howe. New York: Verso, 1995. Print.