One of the most misguided compliments people who are unfamiliar with me like to furnish me with, because they are polite and good at telling people what they want to hear, is that I always seem to know what I’m doing and where I’m going. This is, in the plainest possible terms, a remarkable bucket of bullshit; more than anything else I am terrible for internalising completely arbitrary advice and behaving as if it is heaven-sent dictum which cannot be changed, rather than being “a vague tip from someone who doesn’t actually know what they’re talking about” or at best “an opinion”.
This is one of the reasons I begin to prefer the sciences as I’ve grown older: while the certainties of the past are overturned by new evidence, there is at least a certain amount of work involved in the overturning of these certainities, many of the inherent principles underlying the new version of reality remain the same, and no one just pulled an entire new supposedly working model of the universe entirely out of their arse without being rigorously questioned about it. While the sciences are by no means free of arguments from authority (we are all human, after all, and unfortunately that means we are innately hierarchical), they are not quite so bad for “he’s been here for thirty years so despite the fact that he has never contributed anything that made a lick of sense we will assume that he is correct”.
Recently, after a period of soul-searching of the sort that involves lying in bed with the covers over one’s head and is aesthetically indistinguishable from sulking, my enlightened and not at all distracted by the X-Box boyfriend gave me the advice, “Write the way you want to, and let other people catch up.”
This rather contradicts the advice given to me not an excessive length of time ago by my father, speaking of his all-too-familiar battle to make a commercial living from the practice of fine art (pro tip: it’s really hard): “You have to make what people want to buy.”
Now the truth probably lies in the middle, or, if one is canny, in the business of making people want to buy things that are made the way you want to make them, which is known more succinctly as “marketing”. Marketing other people’s products is a fine and noble career in which the practice of bending the truth becomes a fantastic game in its own right, and I can easily see the appeal. Marketing your own works of art, on the other hand, is Satan’s own perpetual hellish labour and requires both a complete acceptance of and resistance to rejection. These tend to be traits absent from quite a lot of people, and anyone who has any doubts about the quality of their work (ie: almost all of us) finds that “convince me” makes every single hairline fracture in the surface become a gaping abyss into which entire solar systems could comfortably fall.
However, in the last year or so I’ve been mired quite heavily in “what people want to buy”. To an extent this helped me, as it pushed me to finish Tame, on the grounds that this was precisely the sort of thing the people I was familiar with would want to buy: a lightweight, upbeat romantic story about a somewhat baffled woman who falls in love with a werewolf girl, featuring a certain amount of personal growth on the part of all the characters who’ve earned it. But to an extent it has led to me feeling incredibly stifled, as the things I enjoy writing and the style I enjoy writing in are not so much “not what people want to buy” as “what a specific group of people who are not as vocal about it as others want to buy”.
I think things can work out for you if what you want to write and what people want to read intersect in loud places: my friend Melanie Clegg has discovered oodles of people who are just as keen as she to read about the woman of the French Revolution, and the oft-neglected victims of Jack the Ripper rather than the mysterious killer himself; L S Baird‘s familiarity with fandom, fannishness, and shared love of many of the same properties as her new readers has helped to grow a powerful and enthusiastic fanbase. Enthusiasm works.
Until quite recently I lamented the chronic inability of the people who read and enjoy my books to talk about it to other people, until it occurred to me in the midst of my soul-searching session that this was not a bug but a feature. What this tells me is that the kind of people who like this work are not the kind of people who form fandoms or necessarily want to discuss the work with anyone other than the author; they are quiet, thoughtful people, whose enjoyment is directed inward.
It’s not helpful in terms of word-of-mouth, but it is helpful in understanding what kind of work I am producing and what kind of “writer” I am.
Another, concurrent accident has helped with this: while I attended an open-day/pitching event at Foyle’s in Charing Cross (organised by Curtis Brown / Conville & Walsh), I was asked by the very encouraging and very pleasant woman to whom I pitched if I could categorise roughly what genre my current novel fell under. This has always been one of the problems keeping me from organising myself to pitch to agents or publishers: the things I write to not fall easily into a genre and when they do they have the style and content of a different genre. If there were a genre for “literary chimeras” I would be set, but the nearest I could think of, with the clock ticking, was that it was “probably literary fiction because it doesn’t seem to go anywhere else” and a sheepish expression.
The sheepish expression comes of being surrounded, for the most part, by zealous defenders of genre fiction.
Make no mistake, genre fiction needs defending. It is derided by literary critics, seen as a reason not to admit applicants to “proper” writing MAs, and is often used as the repository of whichever ill-feeling a journalist or cultural commentator wishes to short-cut to: little mention is made of the comedic branches of fantasy fiction; functional romantic fiction which has existed for long enough or was written by a male author is hedged off away from its genre peers as a “classic” or “modern classic”, not like that grubby genre stuff; science fiction has borne the brunt of a panickily technophobic society’s desire to nerd-bash the forward-looking. And the quality of work, of course, varies wildly. At its zenith, sci-fi asks important philosophical questions about the nature of humanity, the impact of seismic change, and the development of societies in tandem with technology: at its nadir it drivels incomprehensibly about thinly-veiled racist analogies in space while women are used as receptacles for both the author’s social fears and their imaginary semen. Romance fiction reaches the giddy heights of exploration of the most written-of and praised of human emotions: love – or descends to the bilgewater of exploitative wank material with occasional swooning. It’s a mixed bag, that’s what I’m saying.
My peer group, genre fiction defenders to the core, will wax lengthy about the grandeur of the pinnacles of their chosen genre, and it is a profound joy to listen to – as it is always a profound joy to hear any human being expound coherently on the thing they love. Joy, if not interest, is contagious.
Unfortunately the commentators they cite – and occasionally they – justify their defences, which need no justification, with attacks on other genres. Sci fi loves to take pot-shots at romance. All genres combine in a vast Power-Rangers/Transformers beast to bellow that Literary Fiction, by definition, is shit, rather shooting themselves with the same weapon of generalisation and knee-jerk judgement that they complain of. Now I am sure that if an established writer of that genre were to say that the response would be something along the lines of cry me a fucking river, but as I mentioned way back at the beginning of this meandering eyesore of a blog entry, I tend to absorb this stuff.
Quite honestly I do not know whether the realisation that I do not need to contort myself to court the approval of people whose interests in fiction reading are radically different to mine purely because they are loud and in my sight-line came from a non-judgemental “yes, it sounds like it ought to be” from a beleaguered agent at an open pitching day or whether it came from a moment of frustration in the intervening time when a group of micro-bloggers made another declaration regarding what they wanted from fiction and it aligned perfectly with what I wrote and they still weren’t buying it.
I do know that it’s quite pleasant to remind myself that the hallmarks of “literary fiction” (the long-form exploration of an individual character, emotion, event, or relationship; poetic or unusual prose; a book which is less concerned with plot than with character) are there in Pass the Parcel, and indeed in Protect Me From What I Want. One is wearing the mantle of urban fantasy and the other is making a pretence at a cold-case investigation, but both are literary fiction at their heart. People bought, enjoyed, and even talked about those books. Perhaps they have not done so in their hundreds and thousands: perhaps there have not been fanblogs, or newspaper articles, but those quiet, inward-contemplating people don’t have to be wrong.