Monday, November 22, 2010

You Hate Me And I'm Okay With That

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.


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Brilliant, Bryan, and you've hit upon something that's been tumbling in my brain as well - the fit between publishers/agents and authors. Each book will have its audience, and sometimes that audience will be broad, and sometimes it will be more narrow. The audience for that wonderful Vietnam Vet war-story that my dad loves is more narrow than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo style crime fiction (and yet I don't care for either of those!). They are both still worthwhile stories, and in some ways, important to be told.

Increasingly, it seems that agents and big publishers have to be focused on the wide-appeal books, because the risks they take in publishing demand that kind of return. And increasingly, smaller publishers are stepping in to fill the void left, because not every book will have wide appeal ... and that's okay.

p.s. I recently had the inimitable pleasure of having a negative review that inspired a "defense" from a positive reviewer. That there would be anything worthy of debate makes me glow a bit inside.

p.p.s. also glowing from having my link in the same sentence with Nathan's. :)

Justine Dell said...

I really should pay more attention to your blog ;-). You've always got the most wonderful things to say!

This is excellent, Bryan. I'm going to bookmark it and read it again and again.

You make such spot-on points, that we are truly are able to see the message. And as writers, this is a message we NEED to embrace. Thank you.


Matthew Rush said...

I've never wanted everyone to like my story, I'm way too disturbed and messed up of an individual for that, but I do hope that someone will enjoy it, and that there are enough of those someone's to justify someone else putting up all that money to make it readily available.

Well said, sir.

M.A.Leslie said...

So far I have only had one possible maybe with one agent that turned into a no and this is out of the god knows how many queries I sent out. I will keep writing and trying, not really because I have to be published for everyone else, but because I love writing. I find nothing more exciting then to create something as amazing as a whole other world at my finger tips.

I love what I do, because I love it and that is what keeps me going.

JM Leotti said...

Terrific post Bryan! It's always tough when someone doesn't like your story, but I think of good stories like good food. I know plenty of people who like oysters (every summer there is a festival in my town dedicated to the slimy things), but you couldn't get one near my mouth. I love asparagus, and I know other people who are freaked by asparagus.

It's a matter of taste (pun intended). My writing teacher used to say, just read it anyway. You might not like it now, but as you grow as a writer and reader, you might change your mind. It hasn't yet worked with oysters, but he was right about a couple of books.

Ted Cross said...

I just view those who dislike writers like Rowling or Tolkien as not being human. It makes it easier for me to understand them.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...


I totally squeeed a little when Nathan linked to one of my posts in the same sentence as an article by Ann Patchett, who is one of my absolute literary faves. I mean, it just sort of tickled me that thousands of people were going to be reading "Bryan Russell" and "Ann Patchett" in the same sentence (particularly when the sentence wasn't "Psychotic fan Bryan Russell harrasses award-winning writer Ann Patchett" - bonus!).

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...


Thanks! Bookmark away! Heck, if I knew how to bookmark, I'd bookmark that comment to cheer myself up!

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...


I'll pay! There must be more like me, too, right? :)

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...


Passion is a huge part of it, really. If you write for you, the subjective responses of the outside world are put in much better perspective.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...


Totally agree. There are books I loved when younger that I can't read now, and books I didn't appreciate then, but do now.

And *cough cough* I'll leave all the asparagus to you.

Bryan Russell (Ink) said...



Susan Kaye Quinn said...

@Bryan LOL! Exactly. And I've tried really hard not to stalk Mr. Bransford, but it's been tough. :)

Matthew Rush said...

Thanks Bryan. You're too kind, but you're also the best!

Happy Holidays.

Adele Richards said...

I read an article by Betsy Lerner this week which highlighted that even if you get your book published and into bookshops, it's still hard to sell it!

I found this enormously freeing! If the whole process is so crazily difficult, I concluded, I might as well write what I want and enjoy it...cos that's as far as it might ever get.

To stop focusing on creating something 'marketable' and just to write the thing that is most fun for me....I find that freeing. It takes the pressure off.

Mira said...

Bryan - great post, very helpful to me.


Wanu said...

Fantastic, Ink. And so true.

I know in the world of painting that there's media and marketing demand for certain types of images.

Those images pay well in a sector traditionally known for its impoverished craftsmen and women.

But ask an artist how they feel about painting one.

I knew a guy who called them 'chocolate box' paintings. He still produced them, though, alongside the things he really wanted to paint, his other world of unknown monetary value but incredible value to his soul.

It's the same for us. I think we do a little 'side-by-side' with these two different worlds though. With us, the selling points of a piece, and the thing we really want to produce are perhaps tackled in the same piece of work. The 'how to's - understandable prose, nice arcs, themes ya can feel as the story develops and such - they're part of the craft, and can help broaden the appeal. The story, however, the raison d'etre for the project, I think should be written to satisfy one person. The author.

It's the author's creation, their vision, only one person can do it the way it's supposed to be done.

Some artists prefer to step back from a completed work with the thought, 'That'll sell.'

Most, I suspect, would prefer to step and think, 'Fantastic!'

Of course, others are going to disagree. I think if you've produced what you wanted, it's a little easier to accept that opinion varies.

Lola Sharp said...

I agree with and adore this post. Amen. Testify up in here.

Also, I'm now craving oysters. Raw. Yum.

Happy Thanksgiving,