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Literary Positioning

Literary positioning refers to how the author orientates themselves in relation to their chosen subject matter and their readers/audience. The author's positioning is how they establish a relationship between themselves and the reader by declaring their stance on the subject matter at hand. There are many ways the author can position themselves, by using personal pronouns, adapting their syntax, their tone, etc. We will explore how different methods of positioning work in unison to control how the reader responds to the text. 

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Literary Positioning

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Literary positioning refers to how the author orientates themselves in relation to their chosen subject matter and their readers/audience. The author's positioning is how they establish a relationship between themselves and the reader by declaring their stance on the subject matter at hand. There are many ways the author can position themselves, by using personal pronouns, adapting their syntax, their tone, etc. We will explore how different methods of positioning work in unison to control how the reader responds to the text.

Types of literary positioning

Dan Clayton argued that there are four ways an author can position themselves in relation to their readers and their chosen subject matter (2016). He refers to the ways in which authors position themselves as: down, among, against, and with.

  • Down - If the author is an expert, they may adopt a tone that suggests they are talking down to their readers from a position of expertise. For example, an omniscient narrator is aware of all the events in a text, so when they relay the events to a reader it can sometimes come across as though they are talking down to them.
  • Among - To establish a sense of unity and togetherness. The writer may write in a similar dialect to the one used by the intended audience. This unites the author and reader in a cause, as they feel uplifted by their shared viewpoint.
  • Against - The reader can be addressed as an opponent if the text serves the purpose of persuading the audience to change their view on something, or if it aims to encourage readers to see an alternative side of an argument.
  • With - Similar to 'among', some authors adopt a more colloquial tone and position themselves as friends or allies. This enables the writer to appear more relatable and authentic.

But what strategies do authors use to position themselves among us, with us, against us, or above us?

Benefits of positioning

Positioning is a helpful term because it describes the complicated web of relationships between the author and the subject matter, the reader and the author, and the reader and the text. The term refers to how we understand and interpret literature from an analytical perspective, guided by the author's positioning.

Authors want to position themselves in order to control how their text is perceived. Positioning is an important part of writing because it concerns how the author presents themselves to their readers; so it is important for them to get it right in order for their work to come across as they intend.

How do authors position themselves in relation to their texts?

Here are some positioning strategies that allow authors to control how they position themselves in relation to their text.

Tone

  • Is the tone direct or inviting?
  • Does it start a conversation or provide information?
  • Is it formal or informal?
  • Is it assertive or lighthearted?

The tone impacts the position of the author. For example, if they are writing with a direct and assertive tone of voice they are likely to be positioning themselves as an expert, above the reader and providing them with information.

For example, the following article is titled 'How to Start Investing in Stocks: A Beginner's Guide'. The title declaring it as a 'beginner's guide' places the author in the role of 'expert' in comparison to the reader, as they are a 'beginner'.

Investing is a way to set aside money while you are busy with life and have that money work for you so that you can fully reap the rewards of your labour in the future. Investing is a means to a happier ending.

  • The tone begins as assertive and direct as it opens with a piece of factual information. The author continues to assume the position of expert by imparting basic information on how investing works to the reader.
  • The simple sentence 'Investing is a means to a happier ending' is lighthearted, to help get the point across to the reader in a clear and direct manner without any confusing jargon.
  • As the tone changes the reader feels in a comfortable position and reads on.
  • Bear in mind that with this example, the language and simplistic writing style could also be a marketing technique to appeal to a wide audience.

Dialect

  • Is their dialect from a particular region?
  • What does the area imply about the author's point of view on the subject matter?

The use of dialect in a text allows the author to position themselves as knowledgeable about a particular area, which makes their work appear more authentic.

For example, Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is written in African American Vernacular English that was used in Florida in the 1930s.

'They oughta be shamed uh theyselves! Teasin 'dat poor brute lak they is! Done been worked tuh death; done had his diposition ruint wid mistreatment, and now they got tuh finish devilin '' im tuh death. Wishst Ah had mah way wid 'em all'.

Hurston's accurate depiction of the dialect establishes the text as an authentic representation of the southern black community in Florida, positioning the text as a trustworthy source of information. But there are other reasons why the dialect of the text is important in the novel:

This dialect positions the white reader as an outsider, as they are most likely not used to this slang. By doing so, Hurston mimics how black people felt in the 1930s (and arguably do today), on the outskirts of a society dominated by white people.

  • The reader's positioning emphasizes Hurston's narrative point; black people were victims of racism and forced to be part of a society with predominately white values.
  • Hurston offers an uncensored version of black society. She celebrates their differences to white culture, rather than trying to conceal them. The positioning of the white reader as an outsider is an effective way of demonstrating how white-centric society was normative.

Personal Pronouns

  • Does the author continue to address the reader as 'you'?
  • Do they consistently refer to themselves as 'we'?

The use of personal pronouns can often position the reader and author in close proximity, as pronouns are often perceived as a method to make writing more inclusive and engaging.

For example, writers may use rhetorical questions, such as 'Are you tired of waking up feeling like you already want to go back to bed?'

  • By using a question, the author demonstrates that they are on the same level as the reader because they relate to their struggles.
  • Opening with a question containing personal pronouns automatically involves the reader in the conversation, making the text more engaging and interactive as the reader feels more acquainted with the author.

However, personal pronouns do not always serve the purpose of bringing the reader closer to the topic at hand. Sometimes, they can have the opposite effect.

Take this example from one of Jon King's articles for The Daily Mirror in 2008:

The old hate the young. We don't like their styles or their music, we can't speak their language or understand their problems.

In this scenario, King's use of pronouns distances him as an author from the young, as King aligns himself with 'the old', suggested by his use of the word 'we'. The repeated use of 'their' reiterates the old and young as separate groups, as King positions himself against the young.

Layout

  • Are there subheadings?
  • Are there pictures or diagrams?

The layout of a text controls how the reader interprets the text as it dictates how they read it and what sections they take note of. Pictures and subheadings guide the reader through the text, by signposting their focus through different parts of the text.

Literary positioning A newspaper front StudySmarterNewspaper articles are a clear example of how layout is used to guide the reader.- pixabay

For example, the article may be titled 'How to Make Money Quickly From Home', and the subheadings may read 'Setting up Your Work Space', 'Finding the Right Job for You', and so on. They reveal to the reader what each part of the text will be about, helping them follow the article.

You may have noticed that all of the methods of positioning are ways in which the author, directly or indirectly, addresses the reader. Let's find out more about the strategies of positioning.

Strategies of positioning

In order to position themselves, the authors need to address the reader. The way in which they do so alters their position. Here are some examples:

Framing

Sometimes authors explicitly point out their position to the reader, framing the reader's understanding of their writing.

For example, the letters at the beginning of Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley inform the reader that there is going to be a horrendous story to follow:

'His limbs were nearly frozen, and his body dreadfully emaciated by fatigue and suffering. I never saw a man in such a wretched condition. '

This quote prefaces the novel.

  • Reading this information in Robert Walton's letters prior to the main narrative of the novel establishes a base understanding that the protagonist has experienced horrifying events. As the reader continues to progress through the novel, their understanding of events is framed by the knowledge of the horrific end result.
  • Knowing that the protagonist is in such an awful state before reading the text, means the reader is aware that something is going to go wrong. Shelley frames the reader's understanding of the text, as they look through a lens of destruction.

Synthetic Personalisation

In 1989 Norman Fairclough coined the phrase 'synthetic personalisation'. This refers to the way some texts communicate with us in a friendly and intimate way when the person who wrote it does not know us on a personal level, as synthetic personalisation. As our world becomes increasingly digital, we are seeing a large amount of synthetic personalisation on our computers and mobile phones.

Synthetic personalisation is a false sense of familiarity, from a source that is not actually familiar with you as a person.

  • When we open Facebook and other apps, we are often greeted with a positive 'Hello [name]! It's lovely to see you again! '.
  • By doing so, the machine positions itself as with us, among us, as Dan Clayton put it. Yet, the machine does not know us on a personal level, but it still assumes this friendly position. This is a tactic to make us feel positively towards the application, so we are more likely to use it and recommend it to our friends.

Task: Consider whether influencers on social media have a synthetic personalisation in the way they interact with their followers? Why would it be beneficial for them to adopt a friendly demeanour?

Lexical Choices

The phrase 'lexical choices' simply refers to the word choices used by the text producer. The author's word choices reveal their position in relation to the reader. For example, Virginia Wolf in A Room of One's Own (1929) opens the text with a question: 'But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction - what was that got to do with a room of one's own?'

  • Woolf's choice of conversational tone, established by the use of a question and the direct address to the reader, position her in conversation with the reader. Her writing is formulated like a verbal argument to be spoken in a conversation.
  • Her colloquial word choices and reference to the title of the book make it easy for the reader to understand what she is referring to, as Woolf aligns herself with the reader in her exploration of women and fiction, acknowledging the ambiguity behind the title.

This doesn't just apply to authors and readers, it can also apply to two people in a conversation.

Think of judges on talent shows, they have an assertive tone and they often use technical language indicating their knowledge and expertise on the subject.

Their language places them in a position of expertise in comparison with the contestant, as they offer advice from their higher position.

Literary Positioning - Key Takeaways

  • Positioning refers to how the author orientates themselves in relation to their chosen subject matter and their readers.
  • How the author positions themselves dictate the reader's response to the text.
  • Ways in which the author can position themselves include: down, among, against, and with the reader.
  • The author can position themselves through their tone, dialect, use of personal pronouns, and layout.
  • The way in which the writer positions themselves is a matter of how they address the reader, they can do this through framing, synthetic personalisation, and lexical choices.
  • Positioning is important to understand as it governs how we interpret texts and explains the complicated web of relationships between the reader and the author, the reader and the text, and the author and the reader.

Frequently Asked Questions about Literary Positioning

Positioning refers to how the author orientates themselves in relation to their chosen subject matter and their readers / audience. The author's positioning is how they establish a relationship between themselves and the reader by declaring their stance on the subject matter at hand.

The types of positioning include, above, amongst, against, and with the reader.

Positioning is a helpful term because it describes the complicated web of relationships between the author and the subject matter, the reader and the author, and the reader and the text. The term refers to how we understand and interpret literature from an analytical perspective, guided by the author's positioning.

The strategy behind positioning is in how the author addresses the reader. The ways in which authors address readers include lexical choices, synthetic personalization, and framing.

Literary positioning refers to how the author orientates themselves in relation to their chosen subject matter and their readers/audience.  

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