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XIX. An Academic, Writing: Thinking About Audience Expectations and Reception

Apr 17, 2013 by Lee Skallerup Bessette

As I said in my last blog on Learning to Revise, revising my previously published work into chapters for inclusion into my book challenges me to think more critically about how to adapt this material to meet audience expectations and raises questions about how my argument will be received.

As I read through Laferrière’s rewriting and revisions, trying to piece together what it all means, I am struck by the parallels between my own process of revision and adaptation and Laferrière’s. How is my revised book chapter different from the “original” published article? Or, should I even be calling the article the original, since I presented an early version at a conference? Audience makes a huge difference. The previous incarnations of this particular chapter—both the article and the earlier conference presentation—addressed a very specific Call for Papers focusing on autobiographies. Since the book I am writing now is not autobiographical, I face the task of adapting my earlier writing to address the needs of a very different audience.

Audience expectations dictate how I need to focus my writing. My intended audience is Laferrière scholars who already know a great deal about Laferrière and his work rather than fellow autobiography scholars (although I’m not excluding them). However, because Laferrière is a Francophone author who isn’t as well known to an English-speaking audience, my audience may also include scholars who are unfamiliar with Laferrière’s work. This means I will have to explain more about him and provide greater context for his work than I have done in my previous work.

My own process of revising for a new and different audience mirrors in some ways the process Laferrière himself has undertaken in his revisions and adaptations of his work.  How do I revise my previous work to fit the needs of the audience for the book? My revised chapter asks the question about who not only gets to speak about a shared historical situation (in this case, the dictatorship in Haiti) but also whose voice in then privileged in the situation of “competing” or complimentary narratives. In Le goût des jeunes filles (Dining with the Dictator in English translation or On the Verge of Fever for the movie adaptation), Laferrière, through his revisions and adaptations, really addresses certain critiques of his work, namely that they aren’t “political” enough.

Dany Laferrière’s longtime translator noted that the reason that he selected the title Dining with the Dictator was because Laferrière’s work was often misunderstood as not being “political enough” for a Black writer exiled from a dictatorship. The same criticism was applied to the movie adaptation of the book, with some critiques going so far as to state that the movie dealt with a serious topic with inappropriate lightness. The emotional truth that Laferrière was going for was, in part, to show that even in a dictatorship, under the most horrible conditions, people still seek moments of joy, humor, and even kindness. He, in part, addresses these criticisms through his own revisions.

Laferrière’s revised version of the novel Le goût des jeunes filles includes a wholly fictional journal account of one of the characters, who is now revealed to be part of the Port-au-Prince upper-class who was pretending to be poor and destitute. She was pretending in order to be able to hang out with people whom she felt were more “authentic” (as compared to her privileged friends and family). While she claimed to be obsessed with one of the girls in particular, her journal is almost wholly focused on her own problems with privilege, and she effectively silences any voice or perspective that isn’t her own.

Le goût des jeunes filles closes with a fictional interview between the author of the diary (which has gone on to become a bestseller and a literary phenomenon) and a writer from Vibe magazine. Most of the praise for the diary comes from how it is received and perceived by the public: They see it as authentic and praise the “insight” it offers to the “reality” of Haiti at that time, a reception that Laferrière’s narrative never received. Laferrière is basically saying that he wrote the book he wanted, but paid the price because the critics wanted something else, regardless of how wholly un-genuine it would have been.

This rewrite is the one that got me started on my book project. While Laferrière has stated in interviews that multiple narratives are necessary to understand the reality of Haiti, I can’t help but think that the inclusion of the diary was as much a critique of our reception of his work as it is an attempt to create a more complete picture of the political situation in Port-au-Prince in the mid-1970s.

The revision process also highlights for me the challenges of writing about and critiquing literature that deals with such sensitive topics as dictatorship, class, and race. As I revise material for my own book, I continue to struggle with how aware I should be of my audience and their expectations versus writing the book I want to write about Laferrière’s work. Unfortunately, it’s not likely I will get a do-over like Laferrière does to address my eventual critics.

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