As I write essays, not the five by five nonfiction essays we are given in grade school, but the creative nonfiction essays I have been taught to write through practice and reading, I frequently find myself falling onto the question of audience. “Even if this gets published,” I think, “does anyone really read essays?”
It’s a tough question for me as someone who appreciates the art and creativity behind them so vehemently, but depending on where it’s published, the answer I think could be a very solid no. In the text Why Media Spreads, Jenkins looks at the “spreadability” of content, which differs from past processes for analyzing the value of a text or media by “[recognizing] the importance of social connections among individuals, connections increasingly made visible (and amplified) by social media.”
Sarah Adams discusses in her post the attempt among museums and archives where she has interned to make their information more spreadable in the hopes that it will do so, making the information they have more available to the public, and more likely to be used. This I believe, hits at a basic problem that exists with essays as well, the fact that they existed before the internet, and the fact that that means they weren’t designed or formatted to fit that form of media which has now dominated all others.
I’m obviously no expert, but I think it is safe to say that essays have changed in the ways they are produced and written depending on their end publisher. An essay let’s say by Hasanthika Sirisena for example published by The Sun online will have a very different audience and spreadability than a similar essay by the same author in the print publication Glimmer Train (their website isn’t working so I’m not gonna link it), and both of these would have a different spreadability and network of spreading from an article written by myself for the faith based undergraduate magazine Inter. Like Jenkins mentions, much of this has to do with the availability and ease of spreading content provided or not by the distributor (in this case publisher). The Sun has a large readership that visits their website daily and subscribes for access to all 40 years of essays. Their prestige makes the well-known and well-read receiving heavy traffic, but that traffic is increased by the ease of spreadability created by their sites print and post features on their articles, making it easier for students to print this work to read for class, and for avid essay readers to share on facebook and twitter their findings.
Glimmer Train on the other hand does not have the same spreadability (not that I can check one hundred percent certainly because their website doesn’t work). This publication is kept mainly in print, and the spreadability of the essays published within outside of their predetermined set of readers is small. It would be limited to spreadability wherever there are physical copies, for example during the AWP conference where they may have a table, the handing of a copy off to another person to share with them, or in some wild cases the scanning of a book into a physical PDF to share, though likely only through email with close friends because of copyright.
On the other hand, a piece by myself in Inter magazine’s site may do as well, but not within a literary audience. Rather than having spreadability among people of a literary mind, my piece is likely to spread among those looking for information and eye opening content related to religion, non-religion and thought that they themselves don’t have the chance to interact with. The readership initially of my essay will likely be smaller, but because the essay is not inherently literary in nature and therefore takes on a digitally shareable and relevant format, its spreadability is likely to be higher, especially since Inter is an incredibly social media savvy group.
What does all of this say about the lifeline of the essay, and its more old school more literary counterparts? I have no idea. Is it all still super interesting to me? Absolutely.