Consider the Audience
The gluttonous lords of the land capture those who are unable to defend themselves, boil the captives alive, and then feast on their flesh. Could this be the plot of some new summer blockbuster? It could be, in fact, but for now we will focus on how this depiction of events compares to David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Consider the Lobster,” which starts as a review of the Maine Lobster Festival, but soon morphs into an indictment of not only the conventions of lobster preparation, but also the entire idea of having an animal killed for one’s own consumption. Wallace shows great skill in establishing ethos. In the essay, he succeeds in snaring a receptive audience by laying out a well-baited trap for an audience who was looking for something else altogether, but he ultimately fails to keep hold of much of his catch.
The piece in question was written for and published in Gourmet magazine. Presumably, the readers of that publication have already made up their minds about what they like to eat. A philosophical treatise on animal rights is probably not high on their reading list. In order to suck these readers in, Wallace hides his disdain for the subject matter inside cynical and ironic language. In his opening sentence, Wallace refers to the Maine Lobster Festival as “enormous, pungent, and extremely well-marketed” (252). This is an effective turn of phrase in that each reader assigns his or her own values to those adjectives. While an optimist sees in his mind’s eye a large, aromatic party filled with revelers from all over the continent, a pessimist pictures a crowded, stinky mess which has sold out for the money. Wallace draws them both in with his careful use of language.
The words “optimist” and “pessimist” need further exploration. In the above example, they represent the two aspects of Wallace’s audience. Unfortunately, the words themselves are not a perfect fit for the duality of the readership. For our purposes, we will say that most of the Gourmet readers are probably in the “optimist” crowd, but they are also the omnivores typical of the Standard American Diet: they will eat anything so long as it is expertly prepared and tasty. The “pessimists” are the segment of Wallace’s readership who are actually most receptive to his arguments. The reasons behind any particular reader’s membership in this group are numerous: the reader may be a vegetarian, or opposed to the typical method of lobster preparation, or may just be opposed to commercial fishing and/or commercialized food festivals. The specific reasons are not important; what is important is that Wallace does not have to fight to keep this audience: he just has to keep from alienating them. It is the optimists for whom he must fight.
Wallace must tread a careful path in the opening four pages of his article. In this stage, if his language is too negative, he will lose the optimist majority, but if he caters to that portion of his audience...