The Cultural “We”

September 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

You’re familiar with the royal We, where a monarch says things like “We hereby decree” or “We with wisest sorrow think on him”? These days there’s a new reactionary version, the condescending We, or if you like, the cultural We, where a writer defers to a broad mutual feeling in passing.

Here’s an example from a recent NYT article on leadership:

In 2004, we praised George W. Bush because we wanted to drink a beer with him. Now we criticize President Obama because he won’t drink one with us.

Here’s critic Harold Bloom on Chekhov in How to Read and Why:

We don’t much like Gurov, and we want Anna to stop crying, but we cannot cast their story off, because it is our story.

(In my experience the cultural We is always talking about feelings, because it knows it would look silly claiming facts.)

I wince when I see writing like this, because the writer is telling me how I feel. What business is it of theirs how I think, or how I react to another person, or what I relate to or identify with? Why do writers, who can be such a touchy-feely bunch, presume to know the most unknowable things about me — my thoughts and feelings? To me it’s so insultingly smug when a writer concludes there is a general consensus in the workings of human minds, or simply that I think the same way they do. Ugh.

The lesson for fiction writers is equally clear: You don’t know your audience, because you can’t. If you think you can, you must hold the breadth and depth of humanity in a certain amount of contempt. You’re letting sentimentality get the better of you.

Even if you can, by some superficial clues, claim to know something of another human being, ask yourself, and be honest: how does your depth of knowledge of them compare to your depth of knowledge of yourself?

So write according to the only understanding that’s truly available to you — your own. Be honest in what you don’t know, ask yourself what you assume, and bring it to bear in understanding the scope and depth and limitations of what you write. Have some respect for your audience — admit you don’t know them. This frees you to be yourself in your writing, and it’s the only way to write richly.

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