In a day where write to market seems the catchphrase of modern authorship to some, yet feels synonymous with selling out to others, it’s worth noting the idea isn’t new. In fact, its origins can be traced back more than two millennia to the teachings of Aristotle. Since then, novels such as S. E. Hinton’s seminal The Outsiders in 1967 benefited from employing these concepts, whether conscious of them or not.
When Aristotle wrote his treatise on the art of persuasion 2300 years ago, he identified its three main elements: audience (pathos), purpose (logos), and tone (ethos). Today, practice still honors Aristotle’s insight as a touchstone for many persuasive documents.
When high-school student Hinton penned her Greaser-versus-Soc young-adult novel The Outsiders in 1967, Aristotle’s teachings may not have been foremost in her mind. It isn’t likely the phrase write to market haunted her thoughts either. However, her novel gained and retains much of its persuasive appeal through the three elements of persuasion identified by Aristotle, which basically address speaking to the wants and needs of our audience.
Isn’t addressing the wants and needs of your audience what writing to market is all about?
Obviously, Hinton considered her audience, whether consciously or not, while writing her novel. Will Rogers High School (Hinton’s alma mater) English teacher Kim Piper noted that “kids here can especially identify with Ponyboy and his group” because they share a similar level of poverty. Will Rogers 9th grader Esteban Rivero said that he relates to the book because “It talks about how youngsters live and how they can get all caught up in their friends and cliques.”
This is not by accident.
Hinton establishes the age and socioeconomic classification of the narrator in the first line: “When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ride home” (pg. 3). This line establishes the narrator is too young to drive and/or cannot afford a car, or he would not need a ride. He is a thinker and possibly an introvert, or he would not be considering something as abstract as identity. To some extent, he is a loner, or he would not be doing these things alone. This opening line creates an emotional connection with much of the book’s audience within its first 30 words.
Hinton wrote her novel with a clear purpose in mind and planned its execution to fulfill that purpose. In an interview, Hinton said, “Teenagers today want to read about teenagers today.”
One element of her novel that responds to that want is that all her major characters were all under the age of 20. The book’s narrator was only 14.
Ralph Macchio, who played Johnny in the book’s film adaptation, said the book reached him as a 12-year-old because its narrator was not an adult.
The narrator’s description of his preferred breakfast food and that of his brothers, and the fact that it is offered without caveat or apology, is one of the many passages that clearly show this narrator is not an adult:
“We all like our eggs done differently. I like them hard, Darry likes them in a bacon-and-tomato sandwich, and Sodapop eats his with grape jelly. All three of us like chocolate cake for breakfast. Mom had never allowed it with ham and eggs, but Darry let Soda and me talk him into it. We really didn’t have to twist his arm; Darry loves chocolate cake as much as we do. Sodapop always makes sure there’s some in the icebox every night and if there isn’t he cooks one up real quick. I like Darry’s cakes better; Sodapop always puts too much sugar in the icing. I don’t see how he stands jelly and eggs and chocolate cake all at once, but he seems to like it. Darry drinks black coffee, and Sodapop and I drink chocolate milk. We could have coffee if we wanted it, but we like chocolate milk. All three of us are crazy about chocolate stuff. Soda says if they ever make a chocolate cigarette I’ll have it made.” (pg. 88)
Hinton wrote with a tone that built credibility with the book’s target audience. She acknowledged the book “was overemotional, over the top, melodramatic,” but said, “kids feel that way.”
Many examples from the text demonstrate this. One particular segment might not only be labeled “melodramatic,” but could also be seen as Hinton explaining, through the words of her storyteller, her purpose behind writing the book. In fact, it gives the reason the narrator would eventually go on to tell the story:
“I could picture hundreds and hundreds of boys living on the wrong sides of cities, boys with black eyes who jumped at their own shadows. Hundreds of boys who maybe watched sunsets and looked at stars and ached for something better. I could see boys going down under street lights because they were mean and tough and hated the world, and it was too late to tell them that there was still good in it, and they wouldn’t believe you if you did. It was too vast a problem to be just a personal thing. There should be some help, someone should tell them before it was too late. Someone should tell their side of the story, and maybe people would understand then and wouldn’t be so quick to judge a boy by the amount of hair oil he wore. It was important to me.” (pg. 152)
Overall, if S. E. Hinton had not considered her audience, her purpose, and the tone she wanted to create, she would not have built the emotional connection, credibility, and framework critical to the success of her breakthrough novel, The Outsiders.
The audience itself included young outsiders. She said her purpose was to write something teenagers would want to read. She chose to write in a voice to which teenagers could relate. Hinton designed each of her rhetorical choices to address these essential elements of persuasion, and as a result, she wrote a persuasive novel.
So with roots going back to Aristotle, isn’t writing to market something worth our consideration as well? What do you think? Was Hinton and is the write to market crowd selling out?