The Future of an Allusion

by F.

As a reader, I love me a good allusion. Provided that I understand it.

I was sitting here in my opium den/writing room this morning, banging away, and came up with a title for a section on something I’m writing. “Beyond the Pin Factory” was the title, alluding to Adam Smith’s discussion of specialization. I thought the allusion worked because the section was about the limits of specialization and the audience for the piece I’m writing is mostly MBAs, who are on average economically sophisticated.

All this made me think of a Rule of Allusions: Deploy good allusions and decry bad ones. A good allusion uses the reader’s background knowledge and therefore makes him or her feel smart. A bad allusion shows off the writer’s background knowledge and makes the reader feel dumb.

So before alluding to King Canute or Banquo’s ghost wringing his hands or Pilate washing his, consider whether (on average) the audience will get it without having to open up their laptops and do some Googling.

Some readers will never get the allusions; that’s why I say “on average.” Just consider the mean audience member and those folks camped out a standard deviation or so from the mean. Bad allusions make even good writers look bad.

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