Question: What do you set out to accomplish when you write a literary essay?
Louis Menand: I’m trying to make the subject interesting to other people, that’s the main job of being a writer. Because it’s a subject that I’m interested in, so that’s what I really care about, I don’t really usually push an agenda, and I don’t feel that my main job is to persuade people of something. My main job is to help them think about something.
Question: Who is your presumed audience when you write?
Louis Menand: For the kind of places I’ve written for and the kind of writing that I’ve done, the general way to think about your audience is to think about somebody who’s like yourself, but in a completely different discipline. So I generally think of a biologist, or professor of biology. So if I’m writing about T. S. Eliot, this is probably someone who’s heard of T. S. Eliot, may have read some T. S. Eliot in college, but doesn’t know a whole lot more about T. S. Eliot, because they’re busy doing more important things with their brains, but they might be interested in something that I have to say about T. S. Eliot. So I have to write it in a way that appreciates that this person’s probably very well educated, a smart person, and at the same time, doesn’t know anything effectively about what it is I’m writing about. And that’s really the trick of writing for places like the New York Review of Books or the New Yorker, which are two of the places that I’ve written a lot for.
So that’s really my audience. Now, the actual audience could be very different, could be a lot of retired high school teachers, or, you know, or graduate students or anybody. It’s very hard to know who your readers are, but that’s who I’m... if I have somebody in my head, that’s probably who it is.