The Implied Audience

The term refers to the readers or listeners imagined by a writer or speaker

Henry James
"The author makes his readers, just as he makes his characters" (Henry James).

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The term "implied audience" applies to readers or listeners imagined by a writer or speaker before and during the composition of a text. It is also known as a textual audience, an implied reader, an implied auditor, and a fictional audience. According to Chaim Perelman and L. Olbrechts-Tyteca in "Rhetorique et Philosophie" (1952), the writer predicts this audience's probable response to—and understanding of—a text. Related to the concept of implied audience is the second persona.

Definition and Origin

Long before stories were communicated to the masses via print, they were communicated as songs and lyrical poems, such as those performed by traveling minstrel groups in medieval Europe, or religious officials offering parables to audiences (often illiterate) to convey their points. These speakers or singers, then, had an actual, real audience to focus on, flesh-and-blood human beings who stood or sat before them.

Janet E. Gardner, an associate professor of English at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, explains this very notion in her book, "Writing About Literature," when she explains that there is a "speaker" or writer, who is conveying a story or poem, and there is an "implied listener" (implied audience) who is listening to (or reading) and trying to absorb that story, poem, or song. "We should imagine both the speaker and the implied listener together in a room, with a window open at night," Gardner wrote. "As we read on, we can look for further clues as to who these two people are and why they are together on this night."

A "Fictive" Audience

In the same way, Ann M. Gill and Karen Whedbee explain how the implied audience is "fictive"—that is, it does not actually exist, per se. There is no "audience" of a specified number of people in a crowd listening to a sermon, song, or story. "Just as we distinguish between a real rhetor and rhetorical persona, we also can distinguish between a real audience and an 'implied audience.' The 'implied audience' (like the rhetorical persona) is fictive because it is created by the text and exists only inside the symbolic world of the text."

In essence, and strangely enough, the implied audience is "created by the text" as Gill and Whedbee note. It exists only in the world of literature and books. Rebecca Price Parkin, in "Alexander Pope's Use of the Implied Dramatic Speaker," makes the same point, specifically describing the implied audience as an essential element of poetry: "Just as the speaker need not be, and usually is not, identical with the author, so the implied audience is an element of the poem itself and does not necessarily coincide with a given chance reader."

An Invitation to Readers

Another way to think or describe the implied audience is as an invitation to readers, such as a solicitation made to those who might have read "The Federalist Papers" that our Founding Fathers made before our country became a county. In "Sourcebook on Rhetoric," author James Jasinski explained:

"[T]exts not only address concrete, historically situated audiences; they sometimes issue invitations or solicitations for auditors and/or readers to adopt a certain perspective for reading or listening....Jasinksi (1992) described how The Federalist Papers constructed a vision of an impartial and 'candid' audience that contained specific prescriptions for how the 'real' audience should evaluate the arguments being addressed during the constitutional ratification debate."

In a very real sense, the "audience" for "The Federalist Papers," did not exist until the work was published. Those who authored "The Federalist Papers," Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, were explaining and arguing for a form of government that did not yet exist, so by definition, a group of readers who might learn about such a new form of government did not exist: they were the true definition of an implied audience. "The Federalist Papers" actually sought to create a groundswell of support for that form of government, which did come into existence and exists to this day.

Real and Implied Readers

The pleasure of the implied audience is its unpredictability. If the implied audience did, indeed, come into being and accept the logic of "The Federalist Papers," in other cases, the implied audience does not act—or accept information—in the way the author or speaker intended. The reader, or implied audience, may simply refuse to play the role the author originally intended. As James Crosswhite explained in "The Rhetoric of Reason: Writing and the Attractions of Argument," the reader—the implied audience—is supposed to be persuaded as to the correctness of the writer's point of view.

"Every reading of an argument yields an implied audience, and by this, I mean the audience on whom the claim is understood to be made and in terms of which the argumentation is supposed to develop. In a charitable reading, this implied audience is also the audience for whom the argument is persuasive, the audience which allows itself to be influenced by reasoning."

But because the implied audience is not real, or at least is not in the same room as the author who can then attempt to win it over to a certain point of view, this actually creates a conflict between the writer and the implied audience, which, after all, has a mind of its own. The author conveys their story or points while the implied audience, wherever it may exist, decides whether it will accept the author's assertions, or whether it will see things in an entirely different light.

Sources

  • Crosswhite, James. The Rhetoric of Reason: Writing and the Attractions of Argument. Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1996.
  • Gardner, Janet E. Writing about Literature: a Portable Guide. Bedford/St. Martins, 2009.
  • Gill, Ann M. and Whedbee, Karen."Rhetoric." Discourse as Structure and Process. SAGE Publications, 1997.
  • Jasinski, James. Sourcebook on Rhetoric: Key Concepts in Contemporary Rhetorical Studies. Sage Publications, 2010.
  • Parkin, Rebecca Price. "Alexander Pope's Use of the Implied Dramatic Speaker." College English, 1949.
  • Perelman, Chaïm, and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca. Rhetorique Et Philosophie: Pour Une Theorie De Largumentation En Philosophie. Presses Universitaires De France, 1952.
  • Siscar, Marcos. Jacques Derrida: rhétorique Et PhilosophieS. Harmattan, 1998.
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Nordquist, Richard. "The Implied Audience." ThoughtCo, May. 1, 2021, thoughtco.com/implied-audience-composition-1691154. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, May 1). The Implied Audience. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/implied-audience-composition-1691154 Nordquist, Richard. "The Implied Audience." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/implied-audience-composition-1691154 (accessed May 19, 2021).