Writing to be Read
I’m not really continuing with variations on a theme, but I kind of am.
Look, it’s very easy to think of what a writer does as a lecturer’s podium to a captive audience. Maybe even at one time, long ago, it was so. Maybe at one time there was such a respect for or interest or simply a limited supply of books in a certain field that everyone read everything that was published, even if the writer had, in the past, done things to disappoint them.
If that time ever existed, it is not now.
Look, I come from a place and time where I knew true boredom. How true? Well, the big entertainment was sitting on the stoop (this being Portugal, it was often chairs brought from inside and set on a narrow strip between the house wall and the city) and watching people pass by. That’s what almost everyone did on Sunday.
And here people are going to wax nostalgic — they do even there — for such a day. If I had dime for, every time we’ve been looking for a house since the 80s, how many times some new development sells itself as having generous porches, to encourage community bonding or some such, I’d be a very rich woman.
We have yet to buy in one of those developments, partly because you know and I know those spacious porches will be either unused or used by someone busily working on a laptop. (And most of those people prefer a little more shade and privacy.) There is a reason for that. Several. In Portugal the death of the seat-on-the-stoop set first came with radio, but the final quietus was administered by television. Now with computers they’re like the US and most of their life is online.
However in those long Sundays — or evenings, particularly in summer — when anything, anything would do to relieve boredom, I’d read things I wasn’t particularly fond of and which you now couldn’t pay me to read (mostly romances, a lot of it featuring bullfighters, but also a lot of 19th century novels.)
In those circumstances, writers might have more leeway to preach in a dry and uninteresting way, they might have more leeway to do things that annoy the reader. When you’re desperate, you’ll read ANYTHING.
Nowadays? My turnaround on a book is about 5 pages. If you haven’t grabbed me by then, I have other ebooks, other stuff to do, things that need to get read for research, and always friends to chat with at the other end of the private message program. And heck, I’m not that wired. I have friends who LIVE on their phone.
There is a risk to thinking that readers are your captive audience and simply have to take what you dish out. There is a risk, even, if you think you’re on the side of angels and doing it for the readers’ own good, to “raise their consciousness” or whatever.
Since about WWI or so, there has been a tendency to nostalgie the la boue. That is, there has been a tendency to focus on the worst, on the dirtiest, to create your story around despicable characters. Maybe it was a natural movement caused by the disillusionment in the aftermath of the European avatar. Or maybe it was the intellectuals, finally having attained a life in which they really need have no contact with real difficulties or real work, becoming fascinated by lowlives and criminals.
These were always fascinating to a point, of course, but in older works often used as moral lesson and/or comic relief. Now they seemed to be the only suitable subject for books.
There is quite a bit of this going on still — it’s ingrained into the “literary” attitudes. Even in our field, there is a tendency to write as though no one is clean, no one is good, no one does things for others. Oh, granted, not universal, but what the intellectuals in our field judge worthy is more often than not tainted with nostalgie de la boue.
The problem with this is that it’s not a taste shared by the vast majority of potential readers.
Some years ago, a friend of mine had to take a manual-labor job, working mostly with people who were “largely uneducated” you know, close to finishing high school but not quite? (She needed a night job.)
So — she found two very surprising things: first, almost all of them read during breaks. This was probably a function of their being at a time most of their contacts were asleep and there was nothing good on TV. Maybe. Anyway, they read. And she started talking to them about what they read.
My friend is a big Bujold fan. She was shocked to find these people found the idea of less than absolutely hale character disgusting. She told me “they don’t want to read about anyone deformed or anyone sickly or anyone old. They mostly read about rich people who are young and living lives of luxury. They might have problems, or murders, but while reading the character, the reader gets to escape to that environment.”
Am I saying that’s what we should write about? Oh, heck no, though I now understand the massive popularity of romances and of what I call rich-and-famous thrillers. They are wonderful for providing that escape.
However note that I read some romance and not much of the rich and famous thrillers. I suspect there is a continuum. But I also suspect the vast majority of the readers is right there, at that place. You can, of course, get away with writing other things and other places and other times.
You can even go massive with stuff that’s not about the young and well to do. Though in many of those cases it took a huge amount of promotion, promotion that publishers are less and less able to do.
Also, you don’t NEED to go massive to do well in indie. You can cater to other tastes. You can have older or struggling characters.
But if it’s a continuum, imagine a line. On your left hand of the line, there’s a huge circle where the most readership lives. On your right hand (non political continuum, obviously) there’s a tiny circle, the people who want to read about dirty deeds done by dirty men who are never punished, in an environment of despair and misery.
Every step you take along that point makes it a smaller audience you’ll attract. Now with plenty of publicity, if you attract everyone on the little dot, you’ll still be a multimillionaire. Which creates the illusion that’s where the most of the public is. It’s an illusion.
At the same time, as I found from my fanfic writing — mostly Austen — everytime you make your book more difficult, even justifiedly, you’re going to lose audience. You’d think that in the fanfic group for a regency novelist, the historicals would be the most popular, right? You’d be wrong. Contemporaries are more accessible, to most people, and were therefore by far and away the most popular. The same for more accessible and telegraphed plots vs. the ones that brought about a longer payoff. The further from “normal” you go, the harder it is to get followers.
This is the important thing: you can rage. You can say it is wrong. You can tell the public their taste sucks. Sometimes (sometimes) I’ll even agree with you. But it doesn’t matter.
You don’t have a lectern or a podium with a captive audience who has to read you. You have a little stall in the market, or in my case a peddler’s cart. If your merchandise doesn’t attract the reader, they won’t buy. If they buy and you disappoint them? They won’t buy again.
You’re not in a position of power here. This is not school. You’re not tenured. Sure, if you get in good with a house, you can probably keep selling to them, if you don’t crash too badly, but that’s a hand to mouth, uncertain existence. In the end, if you want to sell? And keep selling? And have a cut of indie publishing, too?
You write for your public. This doesn’t mean you don’t write what you want to, just that you have to figure out how to present it and make it attractive.
But that you have to do, because you’re a writer. Your craft is to make stories for sale. Writing is done to be read. And the best way to be read is to sell far and wide.
And that’s what you should remember when you’re working. You are a merchant, and if you’re not bought you’ll fail.