I've been thinking about a writer's understanding of audience lately, partly because of this post by Susan Quinn and this one by Nathan Bransford. I think the thing that's always struck me is that not everyone will like my writing. It doesn't really matter how good I become, there will always be people who won't connect with it.
This goes for every writer. Every writer. The problem, I think, is that for many writers this readerly response (or even the mere thought of this response) is a paralyzing force, when really it should be freeing.
No one escapes this phenomena. J.K. Rowling may have sold 80 billion books (all estimations by Ink Inc.), but for all the hordes of admirers there are many who just aren't all that into her. Actually, there are legions who mock her writing and stories. There are thousands and thousands who not only fail to love her writing, but actively dislike it - even, dare I say, hate it.
Do you know how much shit that woman has taken? We'd be digging a long time to get through it, steam shovel or no steam shovel. Now, obviously dealing with the hate is much easier when you're swimming in money and have vast armies of devoted followers ready to hex anyone at your command.
So, there's no escape.
I say embrace that, and let it be freeing rather than paralyzing.
Too many writers, I think, are shut down by negative feedback, by someone not liking their story. All the more so, say, if it's a professional. A few agents didn't like the book, so it must be terrible and should be burned at once...
But the thing is, if you polled random readers the response might be the same, and through no fault of the writing. Why would your gypsy vampire novel appeal to a reader of political biographies? Agents aren't really that different. For one, they simply make mistakes on occasion, misjuding quality and potential readership. They're human. But mostly they're just trying to see something that works for them. They have different tastes. An agent isn't trying to make a decision on every story concerning it's quality and publishability - they will reject many things of publishable quality. Their question, I think, is much more narrow and focused than that: Is this something I want to represent?
Now, that earlier question concerning publishable quality will certainly be a part of this determination, but there's so much more to it than that. Do they like the vision of the story? Believe in the writer? Does it have fixable faults? Does the agent have the right contacts to sell it?
Varied responses to a story is just the odds of a subjective readership. It's not that different for an average reader: they go to the store, they pick up books, they read back blurbs. Most of them they put back down. It's not about quality, it's about fit. No book fits everyone.
And yet so many writers find a single rejection, a single negative reading response so damning. Someone didn't like it! Oh my God! I need a latte and a new life ambition! Gah!
And yet this response by a reader is only natural, really, and so obvious when we think of it. Do we like every book we pick up? And, heck, that's stuff which has already jumped a lot of publishing bars and gained that seal of approval. But some books simply aren't for us as readers. We put the book down and try to find something that is. Sometimes we guess right, sometimes we don't.
I've been reading Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs, one of the most lauded literary novels of the year. And it's brilliant, and funny, and clever... but it's not my kind of brilliant. Oh, how I want something to happen. No more clever asides, no more sharp insights into the character's past or family... just something dramatic actually happening, right now, that means something to somebody - that means something to me, the subjective reader.
But of course other readers are perfectly thrilled with this book - and there's much to be thrilled about in it. But that book simply wasn't written for me.
And that's okay. That is, in fact, inevitable. Most books weren't written for me. Nor should my books, I think, be written for everyone.
I think it's freeing, really, to accept that people won't like your writing. That's part of being human, part of being a unique particle afloat in a sea of unique particles, each one bouncing and spinning off the others, an ocean of wonderful and unpredictable chaos.
Once we accept that our writing won't be right for everyone, we can discard our fears and go about writing the story we want to write and trying to find the audience we want to reach. The question isn't who doesn't want to read this... but, rather, who does? Our job, as I see it, is to find that audience and convince them.
It won't be everyone, but we don't need everyone. Everyone is an impossible dream, a fiction, an abstraction. But there are real readers out there, real people looking for the stories that are right for them.
It's a big sea, though, so we better start swimming.