Authors and Audiences. And Labels.
It starts here:
Except that it’s not about author self-marketing. But it was the first of a series of author blog-post links that Jodi* sent me recently, and it is kind of about author self-marketing because it’s about being an author and being Out There and Putting Yourself Over and how to manage this. Or fail to manage it. Or manage it badly.
I had also read about Danielle Steele saying that she doesn’t write romance and blinked a little. I don’t read Steele and I don’t read so-called romance—‘so-called’ because my take on labels is a little different from White’s, which is what I want to talk about—so I thought, oh, okay, well, maybe she’s heard it too often as a way to blow her off and she’s tired of it, and maybe she was also generally tired when she said what she did because it was her one-billionth interview that week and every reporter had said ‘romance’ in that way that makes the person something’s being said at know they’re being patronised. Maybe she was quoted** badly or out of context, or by a reporter who was so nonplussed (like a lot of the readers of the article/watchers of the interview) by hearing Danielle Steele, Sovereign-Tzarina-Big-Cheese of Romantic Fiction, saying that that’s not what she writes that his/her finger slipped on the edit button. Maybe Steele snapped. Maybe she’d just had it with being typecast.
Like, maybe, I’ve been typecast as a YA fantasy writer. And like maybe I’m really, really tired of it. Emphasis on the typecast, okay? This is the other side of labels. That they’re a box to smush you in, and if you suggest in either word or deed that the box dimensions are not really your dimensions they (a) smush you harder and (b) blame you for not fitting in the box.
There are kind of a lot of blog posts out there lambasting Steele for what she said. And let me reiterate that I don’t read her*** and haven’t managed to watch the interview. So I can’t offer an intelligent opinion of what she said and how she said it. But I can say I’ve read a few of the blog posts in response, both good, sharp, funny† ones like White’s†† and rather more furious, betraying-her-audience ones that you can find for yourselves, and my response is . . . um. This is not my experience of being labelled.
That people read my books is great. Amazing. Astonishing. GREAT. Over thirty years as a professional writer and I’m still gobsmacked every single frelling day that I’m getting away with it. That strangers are willing to pay money to read my books. Is this the best of all possible worlds for a writer or what? Yes, it is. And I doubt that Steele or any other writer just stinking lucky enough to earn a living as a writer isn’t pretty well constantly and permanently aware of the luck and grateful to the mostly-unknown readers and their money. I am. You bet I am.††† And that (probably) a majority of my faithful, money-paying, spreading-the-word readers originally found me in the YA fantasy section of their library or their bookstore—or jostling with McCaffrey and McKillip on a friend’s bookshelf‡—is absolutely fine.
Whatever works. Writers want their books read.
What doesn’t work so well is when people decide They Know What You Write, or that They Know What YA Fantasy‡‡ Is—or that Because You Write YA Fantasy You Are A Nice Little Person Who Will Never Step Out of Line (in Word or Deed)‡‡‡. I’ve been fighting this battle since BEAUTY. BEAUTY is about as warm and furry and feel-good as a story can get without positively sticking to your fingers, I was 25 when it was published and looked about 16, and dear gods was I patronised. And—ahem—I was cranky when I was 25 too. Is every first novelist put into a box that purports to define the trajectory of their future career? I don’t know. But I was. That people are going to like one of your books better than another, or that they’re going to love this one or that one as top favourite is fine, like being put in the YA fantasy category shelves is fine. What is not fine is when readers, publishers, book critics and Mrs O’Brien’s parakeet tell you that you are this kind of a writer and therefore you should write this kind of book. And feel free to be angry with you if you don’t.
We will pause now for a moment in which I invite you to imagine the reaction of the patronising, sweet-little-YA-author BEAUTY-lovers to, let’s say, DEERSKIN. Or SUNSHINE.§ To give you a slightly fuller flavour of my experience let me add that some of them are the people who had sent me lists of stylistic errors and scolded me for ‘damn’ and ‘hells’ in SWORD and HERO . . . and, oh, my, it never quits, the people who are outraged that Aerin has an affair with Luthe and goes home to Tor in a book that won the Newbery Medal. The Newbery—and SWORD’s Newbery Honor—are why I became an earning-living professional writer. I would be stupid not to be both aware of this and grateful—but the label ‘children’s/YA’ frelling haunts me. If I had a dime/shilling for every letter/email I’ve had telling me sulkily (kids§§) or accusingly (parents and teachers) that HERO is too hard for children I could put a conservatory on Third House. It could be quite a big conservatory if I also had a dime/shilling for all the protests about Aerin’s morals.
I could go on. And on. And on. I haven’t even got to the ‘have you ever written a real book’ aspect of being a genre writer. Labels suck. They perform a useful function, and we’re lumbered with them until we come up with a better system.§§§ And maybe Danielle Steele was being a thoughtless cow. But she’s been around a long time, like me, and maybe she was just tired of being defined by her label.
And now maybe tomorrow I’ll finally get to the self-marketing posts.
* * *
* Who knows me well. Possibly too well.
** or clipped, since the original interview seems to have been on TV:
I, however, can’t watch it, because my computer is presently not merely possessed by demons, but bungful, creaking at the seams stuffed with demons^ and Moving Pictures is not an option.
^ And Raphael and Gabriel say they have to take it awaaaaaaaaay to exorcise it.
*** I don’t read most writers. That I don’t read her doesn’t mean anything. I’m a very, very slow reader, I read over way too wide a range, I read a lot of nonfiction, I love million-word Victorian novels by Dickens and Trollope and Eliot, I reread my favourites including not only Dickens and Trollope and Eliot but Tolkien and Dickinson and Wynne Jones, and I’m an evil cow with a bad attitude, and I throw more books across the room than I don’t.
† Choose Your Own Adventure Vampire Westerns????
†† And yes, I know I have to read her PARANORMALCY, because of the pink rhinestone taser.^ I’m looking forward to it.
^ Jodi told me about the pink rhinestone taser too. See? Knows me too well.
††† Cranky? Sure. I’m also 5’8” and wear glasses. It’s a complete package.
‡ Are you going to drum me out of the regiment if I say that in my experience the majority of book-hoarding SF&F geeks do alphabetize? They may not be able to get into their bed for the stacks of books on the floor, but the Hs are holding up the bedside lamp because there’s no room for a table and the OPQs are on the windowsill with a black plastic garbage bag backing them so they don’t fade in the sun, and the reason you can’t get the door open more than a crack is . . . but by golly they’re alphabetised.
‡‡ Or Choose Your Own Adventure Vampire Western
‡‡‡ I also need to point out that the world was a lot different in 1978 when BEAUTY came out. Among other things ‘YA’ had pretty much only recently been invented, and as a category was still erring mostly on the conservative side.
§ I’ve told you about the sixth-grade teacher who assigned SUNSHINE to her class, haven’t I? She hadn’t read it yet. Nor had she noticed that it was being published as adult.^ It was just the new book by the author of HERO, and she’d seen in the paper that the author was coming to her town on tour. She brought her class to my evening at the local bookstore.
^ And yes, lots of teenagers read SUNSHINE, and there’s now a YA-target edition, the new shiny gold one. But when I wrote it I really really really wanted to make the point that fifth graders and Great-Aunt Gladys who makes you put a pound in the charity box if you say ‘damn’ should not read SUNSHINE.
§§ Don’t Get Me Started on the School Assignment Letter
§§§ Actually DNA typing and the plug in the back of your neck don’t appeal to me much, even if this would get rid of labels.
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