My friend Dave Freer posted on Monday about writing what sells… for the new market. As so often happens, we were in a similar place mentally.
Monday morning in the shower (yes, I think in the shower, deal) I found myself thinking about how we don’t know what sells.
Now, we might know what has literary merit, but literary merit is a matter of opinion. I read someone today talking about how Harry Potter is totally devoid of it, which it very well might be, but compared to what? The comparisons this person pulled up were Dickens and Tolstoi. Dickens wrote by the frigging word, so what principle of literary value are we applying? And as for Tolstoi, I treasured his work and kept it by my bedside for years. You see, I suffer from insomnia and I could never go more than fifteen pages without falling asleep. So, I’m willing to concede it’s very important to the history of literature. At least I hope so, or I’d hate to think of all the trees that were killed to print it. Just don’t make me read it.
Frankly, though I gag at the idea that Harry Potter is the most inventive piece of fantasy evah – it’s rather like Enid Blyton boarding school mysteries with magic – I gag even more at the idea of people putting it down because it doesn’t “illuminate the human condition.” I don’t know about you but when I want to illuminate the human condition, I get a flashlight. (Wait, that’s the human basement. Never mind.)
Doesn’t matter anyway. Literary value is a will o’ the wisp and has been used for centuries by those-who-know-better to tell the masses what ’orrible little people they are and what ’orrible ’horrible taste they have. (Shakespeare. All that blood. Ghosts. Inaccurate history. Rotted the mind like cheap candy. A favorite of truculent apprentices and low brows. Why, he had the violence happen right htere on the stage, while all the well bred people knew the way to do it was to have a messenger come and announce it. In the more fraught plays, messengers crossed back and forth on the stage, but it was good taste. Everyone knew that. As a literature major I’ve had to read those plays. They’re very illuminating of the human condition. Like Tolstoi.)
What literary value is not is a predictor of sales, unless you are talking ONLY sales to a small subset of status-insecure people who want to show how intelligent they are. Now, there are any number of those and there are scam– er… authors who make a living off them, but I am not an artist – I work for a living – and I’d rather sell stuff people genuinely enjoy.
The question is… what is that?
Until recently, if you wanted to be read by the largest number of people, the path was easy. First, you had to impress the gatekeepers. Fortunately the gatekeepers were a small clique living mostly in NYC and all attending the same parties and reading the same books or – more likely – watching the same movies. And they weren’t shy with their opinions, either. They talked all the time, because you see, living in an echo chamber, they viewed their tastes and opinion as symbols of their status and intelligence. So, attend one or two conventions, and you could psyche them.
Failing that, there were slews of books, seminars and workshops that taught you how to think the way they did, for the purpose of creating stories they’d love. Then they’d make sure your book got in all the bookshops, and then, if you were lucky, a miracle occurred and your book appealed to the public also. But that was secondary because a) first you had to catch your rabbit – or editor – and b) the public selection was limited, and often constrained to the current fad. So if all editors wanted purple swans, (shud up you. Actually it’s barely less plausible than things they did want: romantic inoffensive vampires; female detectives who thought only of shoes, etc.) you wrote purple swans and if your purple swan was a little better than average you were gold er… purple… er… the purplest of them all.
Recently, while trying to cut down on the number of dead tree tomes around the house, I went through my how-to-write-shelf and realized most of those books are now useless. All of them, openly or not, teach you to write the book the gatekeepers will love. So other than the grammar books and the Swain (which you’ll pry off my cold dead hands) they’re mostly useless.
This was confirmed for me when a writer of far more experience told a group of us to “Put it all out there, even the things you think are bad. Don’t judge your own stuff. Writers are horrible judges of their own stuff, and these days we just don’t know what sells. We don’t know what people want.”
But the thing is, I’m a wussy. Oh, not in most circumstances, but when it comes to my writing. I sent stuff out DESPITE my fear it sucked and kept sending in the face of rejections because I’ve got a quitting dysfunction, not because of any self confidence.
I hated having to jump through the hoops of the gatekeeper’s opinions, but at least I could study the books, and know I was getting better, as defined to ‘closer to the goal.’ Now, it’s like… gravity is gone, we’re all floating free and, like Thena, in Darkship Thieves, my internal sense tells me I’m always upside down, no matter how I turn.
And awards are no indication of what is good or what will sell. SF writers are horrible at judging their peers. It devolves to either status seeking or personality contest. And fans are only slightly better because the fan awards usually are voted on by only a subset of fans. (The Prometheus is perhaps the best predictor of sales, and I say that, not just because I got it, but because I know people who read every winner as a matter of course. Of course, I run with that set of people, so my opinion is biased.)
And I’ve already disqualified myself from literary merit. So, what remains?
Funny, but Dave and I both arrived at the same conclusion more or less at the same time. Go back to the beginning of the field, to the things that caused the explosion. Many of those are now marred by archaic language and style. But any person with half a brain can tell the things in the story that appealed to people. Well, I can tell you some of them that appeal to me: Resourceful and daring heroes; strange lands; bravery; larger than life characters.
Mind you, I don’t know if my tastes are universal. But I know what I like. And I’d bet you there’s at least ten thousand people out there who have the same tastes I do. Probably, more like a hundred thousand. And although it might take time, the new market place gives me a chance to find most of them – or for them to find me.
The new net of friendships between kindred minds spans the globe, so if I find someone who likes me, and they talk to their like minded friends… well…
Will this make me as rich as Rowling? Who knows. Probably not. Besides, I can’t have everything (where would I put it? Who would dust it.)
Making a comfortable living writing the stuff I like for people who like it sounds like paradise to me, compared to the last ten years of competition contortionism to fit the square peg into the round hole of expectations.
It’s good enough. It will do. And it’s enough to aim for. (And illuminating the human condition can wait for the flashlight.)