“Dear Professor Haworth,” the email begins:
I read your essay “Vivaldi” in the current issue of Creative Nonfiction …. I’m writing to ask one question. You note that the camp musicians penned two original works, one which they titled “Work Shall Set You Free.” I’m Jewish and immediately know and understand the context for that infamous German phrase. I wondered why you chose not to explain it or put it in context for those who don’t know the historical context or relationship to the concentration camps, who won’t make the connection.
How much should we explain to the reader? This is a question that comes up a lot. In fact, it comes up every single time we write. Writing is a series of decisions of what to explain to the reader, what not to, what leaps and associations we believe the reader can take, should take, or might not be able to take (but do they need to?). It happens, on some level, with every word. Each word in our work is a kind of bet—which readers will recognize what we are trying to do, and which will not? And when that word combines with the next, and spreads its reach into reference or metaphor or anything beyond the basic and denotative, we make an even bigger bet.
Of course, if we stopped to consider the ramifications of each of those decisions each time we made them, we wouldn’t get much writing done. So we write intuitively. If we do give thought to this issue, it’s based on our own idiosyncratic experiences and personal feedback loop (like the email above) of what our readership can and will follow.
But I want to suggest that we should think more deeply about what we choose to explain. Not just for our readers’ sakes, but because the decisions we make—where and how we place our bets, to continue the previous metaphor—say a lot about who we are as individual writers. At their core, these decisions are embedded in long-standing questions of privilege. The freedom not to contemplate these decisions too heavily—as in, I know my reader will get what I’m saying—is the most privileged position of all.
What I mean is this: when American letters were (even more) dominated by men of a certain type—i.e., mostly white, Christian men who graduated from elite colleges, served as each others’ editors and writing community—it was easy to gloss past the question of what needs to be explained. These writers came from a narrow world of knowledge and experience, one that they could count on their readers and fellow writers to know. Simply put, when everybody looks like you and has the same background, well, there’s not much questioning what needs to be explained and what doesn’t. If you know a reference, your reader will—and if they don’t, well, they should be more educated, shouldn’t they?
If you think those days are long gone, part of literary history, consider this: anyone who’s sat in a writing workshop knows that the writer still most likely to be asked to explain themselves is a person of color, or a religious minority, or an LGBT writer. Matthew Salesses puts it this way: “When the group critiques a piece of writing from the position of a single normative reader, when it claims that art speaks to ‘universal’ truths as if truth is not cultural, it demands that difference, individual difference, be erased or exaggerated. What the marginalized writer is left with then is work that is no longer hers.” The most privileged space in any writing room belongs to the imagined reader, for whom everyone is writing or feels pressure to write to. And that reader is still largely understood to be white, male, straight, Christian American with a set of references that he is comfortable with.
It has been a long fight to dislodge the grip the reader has on all of us. Gloria Anzaldua wrote in 1987, “Until I am free to write bilingually and to switch codes without having always to translate … and as long as I have to accommodate the English speakers rather than having them accommodate me, my tongue will be illegitimate.”
Anzaldua shows us that the pressure to translate our languages and our references has deeply political repercussions. Only outsiders need to explain themselves. When you don’t need to explain anymore, you have arrived.
Back to the example with which I began: what do we expect a reader of an American literary magazine to know about the Holocaust? It has been seventy years since the liberation of Auschwitz. English is now the “main purveyor of Holocaust writing,” according to Holocaust literature scholars David G. Roskies and Naomi Diament, the language through which the Holocaust is most often discussed, narrated, memorialized. Are the gates of Auschwitz sole Jewish territory?
I like to think that most readers of an American literary magazine would recognize this particular reference. I may be wrong about that. On some level, I have to admit that I want you to recognize it. I expect it of you. I want you to know because language can harm as well as mend, and here is our evidence. Primo Levi: “The lorry stopped, and we saw a large door, and above it a sign, brightly illuminated (its memory still strikes me in my dreams): Arbeit Macht Frei, work gives freedom.”
Quoted texts: Matthew Salesses, “Rethinking the Creative Writing Workshop,” Gulf Coast online; Gloria Anzaldua, Borderlands; David G. Roskies and Naomi Diament, Holocaust Literature: A History and Guide; Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz.