I wish I could say that the spontaneity trap we discussed two weeks ago was the only pitfall that has to be avoided on the way to a successful career as a writer—or, for that matter, on the way to a successful life. Here as elsewhere, the writing business offers a convenient microcosm of life all through our declining industrial civilization, so I’m going to talk about writing again; you can take the same principles and apply them more generally to whatever you want to do with your life.
As we’ve seen in previous posts in this series, life in today’s industrial societies might best be described as a rigged game, in which every move that you’re encouraged to make by the shills of the status quo is intended to help keep the corporate economy going at your expense. There are various ways that this plays out, but one that affects writers most seriously has to do with the relationship between genre and audience.
Genre? That’s a bit of French that got lured into a dark alley long ago and now works long hours in the sweatshops of the English language. (In case you were wondering, it’s pronounced ZHON-ruh; I’ve heard plenty of people struggle with that detail.) Genre is the answer to the question, “So what kind of book is it?” There are broad genres such as romance or fantasy, and narrow genres such as Regency romance and heroic pulp fantasy. There are also genres defined by the author who invented them—“Georgette Heyer-style Regency romances” and “Tolkienesque fantasy” are known subgenres in their respective genres.
Genres are as essential in nonfiction as in fiction—there was quite a peak oil genre there for a while, and books on Druid nature spirituality still form a thriving genre. For that matter, knowing what genre you’re writing in is essential to getting published. Most publishers focus on certain genres and avoid others, and it’s standard practice for publishers to ask an author to name a few other books of the same type or genre as the manuscript the author is sending in. If the author can’t do this, it usually means that he or she hasn’t done adequate research and the manuscript probably isn’t worth bothering with; books so original they create genres of their own are much, much rarer than authors like to think.
All this is very sensible. If you like Raymond Chandler’s mysteries, and want to read other stories like them, it helps to know there’s a whole genre of hardboiled private-eye mysteries, full of novels that send world-weary investigators down the mean streets of grittily described modern cities in search of clues to tangled, brutal, morally ambiguous crimes. That’s also something to know if you detest Raymond Chandler’s mysteries, and would rather take in a mystery set in a pleasant small town, where the murder’s practically an afterthought, the detective’s the middle-aged woman who runs the local bed-and-breakfast, and every mystery includes another of her favorite cookie recipes. (Those belong to the genre of cozy mysteries, by the way.)
Genres are equally helpful if you want to dance across the borders that divide them. The Harry Potter novels that made J.K. Rowling famous are a combination of two rather old-fashioned genres, the classic English public-school novel and the Tolkienesque fantasy. My tentacle novels, for that matter, are a combination of two other old-fashioned genres, the Lovecraftian weird tale and twentieth-century “this-world” fantasy (as distinct from the kind of fantasy that takes place in wholly imaginary worlds). That kind of genre-blending, which can be done in nonfiction as well as fiction, is a fine way to write something interesting. It also allows you to make ironic comments on one or both genres, if you have a mind to do so.
That said, one of the basic rules to keep in mind while navigating the swamps of today’s industrial societies is this: no matter how useful and sensible something is, modern corporate culture will find some ingenious way to screw it up. Genres are a great example. The clever way that the big corporate publishers have turned the genre system into a fetid mess will be instantly familiar to anyone who has to deal with the huge, corrupt monopolies that dominate computer software or the internet these days. That is to say, the corporate publishers have stopped trying to publish books that customers want to read, and have fixated instead on trying to force customers to read the books that the publishers want them to buy.
The first post in this sequence explained one way this gimmick gets enacted: by convincing would-be writers that their only choices are to submit to a big corporate publisher or settle for self-publishing with another big corporation, they focus the full attention of the corporate media on the narrow range of genres they want to promote, while ghettoizing the rest in an online purgatory where only the most dedicated searcher can find them. There’s another way this gimmick is worked, however, which starts from the writing end rather than the publishing end.
Let’s say you, as an aspiring author, are trying to figure out what you’re going to write. By and large, unless you listen to scruffy-looking Druids or equally disreputable sources, you can expect to be given two conflicting sets of advice. On the one hand, you can count on being told that the sensible, lucrative thing to do is to find out what the big publishers want to publish, and get busy turning out neatly machined spare parts that fit their specifications right down to the last detail. On the other hand, you can count on being told that real authors do exactly the opposite and write things that publishers won’t publish and readers won’t read, because this and only this demonstrates just how far out they are on the bleeding edge of raw creativity.
Mind you, you may not be told either of these in so many words—though this does happen; it happened to me back when I was young and clueless, and I’ve heard from many other writers who’ve had the same experience. Far more often, they’re passed on indirectly, by way of books, articles, and web pages that assume that of course you’re going to follow one or the other trajectory. Your local public library system, for example, very likely has at least one book with a title like How To Write That Blockbuster Bestseller! It won’t teach you how to write a bestseller, just how to churn out the currently fashionable style of fiction for the benefit of your corporate overlords. Go to your nearest university library, on the other hand, and you’ll find plenty of arch volumes of literary criticism that take for granted that real literature is defined by how few people can stand reading it.
Tolerably often in my blogging I’ve mentioned the helpful bit of occult theory that picks apart dichotomies like this one. The short version is that whenever someone insists that you have two and only two choices, you can be sure of at least three things. The first is that you’re being lied to. The second is that both choices being presented benefit the person who’s pushing them at you, at your expense. The third is that some of the choices that aren’t being shown to you will work to your benefit, and that’s exactly the thing that the person pushing the dichotomy at you doesn’t want you to notice.
There’s a fourth thing which you can’t necessarily be sure of, but it’s worth your while if you can manage it. If you can figure out what the two choices being pushed on you have in common, you can generally use that as a springboard toward the alternative choices you’re not supposed to notice. Take the dichotomy we’ve just discussed for example. What is the thing that both those choices have in common?
A refusal to listen to what the reading public has to say.
That’s the keynote of the entire corporate economy these days. It’s not at all difficult to find out what the customer wants and then provide it, and for a good many centuries that was the way that businesspeople made their money, but for complex cultural reasons, that’s not something that today’s corporate flunkeys are willing to do. Obsessed with their own supposed status as the good people, the smart people, the people who ought to tell everyone else what to do, they can’t stand the thought that mere customers ought to have anything to say about what they buy.
That’s why it’s a waste of time to listen to what big corporate publishers say the reading public wants. Big corporate publishers are not the reading public. They’re subsidiaries of a handful of vast media conglomerates. Their overt goal is to make money. Their broader and more pervasive goal is to maintain a state of affairs where vast media conglomerates have the absurdly inflated power and wealth they have today. The books they choose to publish will be selected partly to make money, partly to enforce the state of affairs just mentioned, and partly to conform to whatever fashions happen to be in vogue in the airtight and oxygen-deprived cognitive bubbles of the upper end of the managerial class.
And the literary avant-garde? Their job is to make sure that the reading public has no meaningful alternative to the slop being dished out by the big players. That’s why they get the corporate patronage that they do. For the last century or so, success in any part of the avant-garde has been measured by how much of your audience you can chase off. That’s not accidental—it keeps people who might otherwise have challenged the domination of the big boys locked up in little self-reinforcing ghettos, where they can preen themselves over how misunderstood they are by the horribly philistine public. It’s a clever gimmick and it’s seen a lot of use.
The alternative is to listen to the reading public—not the corporate publishers, not the avant-garde, but ordinary people who want to pick up a book from time to time and enjoy the hard work and creative flair you’ve put into writing it. Writing, when it’s at its best, is a conversation with the reader, not a lecture inflicted on a passive audience. To have a conversation, in turn, you have to listen as much as you talk.
How do you do that? You begin with yourself. Presumably you want to write because you’re crazy about reading. (If you don’t love to read, you don’t have what it takes to become a writer; find something else that delights you, and go with that instead.) Begin with your own bookshelves. What kinds of books excite you, enthrall you, leave you panting for more?
I’m not just talking about fiction here, by the way. One often unnoticed aspect of the trap just discussed is the way that almost all beginning writers are herded into fiction. In an average year, 80% of all books published in the United States are nonfiction, and the other 20% are fiction. If my experience is anything to go by, on the other hand, of people who want to write, 80% of them want to write fiction and the other 20% want to write nonfiction. If you’re up for writing both, consider this: you can be one of the 80% of novice writers chasing 20% of the available slots, or you can be one of the 20% of novice writers chasing 80% of the available slots. Take your pick!
(Does that matter? You bet it does. The level of skill needed to break into print as a writer of nonfiction is much, much lower than the level you need to do the same thing writing fiction. I worked for a while as an outside reader for a nonfiction press, and you wouldn’t believe some of the manuscripts that got purchased, cleaned up by a hardworking editor, and published.)
So you can start by taking an inventory of the books you adore, nonfiction as well as fiction. Notice what they have in common. Notice where they differ. Get a sense of the genres to which they belong, and make a point of noticing which small to midsized publishers bring out books in those genres. Read more books in those genres, and notice what seems to be selling well and what seems to vanish without a trace. If you have the chance, find out what other fans of those same genres are reading, and talk to them about what they like and don’t like.
While you’re doing this, get a sense of what’s already been done to death in the genres you like. This is a particularly serious problem in nonfiction, so I’ll take that as a source of examples here. Occult publishers groan when they get yet another proposal for yet another book on the basics of Wicca. That’s a subject that’s already been written about six ways from Sunday, and nothing you can say about it will be new. Don’t waste your time. Plenty of other beginner’s books on familiar topics have also been done to death in the same way. Here’s a hint: if there’s a [Subject] For Dummies book about it, another introductory book on the same subject will not be publishable.
If you want to get published, you need to come up with a manuscript that does at least two things. The first is that it has to say something that hasn’t already been said; the second is that it has to say something that your prospective audience wants to hear about. Most beginning writers, once they learn to write well enough to see print, stay unpublished because their manuscripts don’t do both of these. Listen to the people who like the kinds of books you do, and notice what they want that the big presses aren’t giving them: that’s been my ticket to a decent living as a full-time freelance writer. Your mileage may vary, but most of the other people I know who are making it in the writing trade are doing some variant of the same thing.
You can do very well for yourself writing books, be they fiction or nonfiction, which address a subject that the big corporate publishers don’t want to address. For example, it’s been hard and fast dogma in the corporate presses for years now that romance novels have to have explicit sex scenes. It so happens that a great many readers of romance novels don’t want explicit sex scenes. They enjoy the kind of romance that Jane Austen invented and Georgette Heyer made her own, in which the characters’ personalities and emotional lives play a larger role than their hormones, and the story focuses on how Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy get over their pride and their prejudice so they can let themselves fall in love. The big corporate presses don’t care—but there are now close to a dozen smaller firms turning out novels in the “clean romance” genre, and the better novels in that field are selling quite well.
In the same way, the big corporate imprints in the science fiction field these days have no time for space opera of the classic sort, with square-jawed heroes commanding starships in battle. Science fiction these days is very woke, and the big publishers, swept up in the latest fad, are doing the same thing to their SF imprints that other big media companies are doing: turning out a steady stream of woke morality plays and then squalling like spoiled infants because most people don’t like those and won’t read or watch them. Now of course fans of woke morality plays have every right to get their preferred entertainment, and I wish them a steady supply of the same, but the rest of us—including fans of classic space opera—have the same right, you know.
The result has been the rise of a whole industry of mostly self-published space opera, marketed via its own network of fan sites and online word of mouth. Sales of the more successful titles routinely beat those of the lavishly marketed woke morality plays lauded by the official SF cartel by anything up to an order of magnitude. It’ll be interesting to see how long it takes the corporate imprints to realize that “get woke, go broke” applies to them, too, but space opera fans aren’t waiting. It would not surprise me if someday soon somebody got the funding together to launch an indie SF publishing house aimed at that booming market, and made money by the truckload.
This is especially funny because science fiction has been through this same experience before. Back in the late 1940s, the SF pulp magazine that racked up the highest sales wasn’t Astounding or Fantasy & Science Fiction or any of the other venues critics like to talk about these days. It was gaudy, dog-eared Amazing Stories under the editorship of the irrepressible Raymond Palmer, who packed its pages with classic SF full of square-jawed heroes, nubile maidens, tentacled horrors, and the rest of it. Oh, and since Palmer was an occultist, he also laid the groundwork for the brilliant science fantasy of the 1960s and 1970s by publishing a lot of stories that had plenty of occultism in them. (Palmer was good at that sort of thing; when he left Amazing Stories to found Fate Magazine in 1948, he promptly created the modern rejected-knowledge scene and did more than any other person to launch the UFO phenomenon into popular culture.)
Those are two examples. There are plenty of others. The big publishers, like the big internet corporations, are obsessed with trying to force people to buy what they want to sell—with a nod to Microsoft’s clown-in-chief, we can call this the Billy Bluescreen model of marketing—rather than doing the smart thing and selling things that people want to buy. Annoying as that habit is, it leaves the field wide open to anyone who’s prepared to do an end run around the corporate economy and fulfill the public needs and wants that the big boys can’t be bothered to notice.
Let’s take a step back from writing at this point and talk about the broader picture. The illusion of consumer choice in today’s industrial economy is maintained by ringing endless wholly cosmetic changes on a narrowing variety of goods and services, which are all selected for their benefits to the corporate system rather than for whatever benefits they might offer to you. Outside that narrowing circle, there’s a growing list of goods and services that people want but that can’t be obtained within the corporate economy at all. Fortunately, the corporate economy isn’t the only option there is.
A great many people these days have woken up to the fact that there are alternatives to the corporate economy. That’s one of the main forces driving the spiraling labor shortages affecting most industrial societies these days—a great many people have realized that they don’t have to waste their entire lives making a pittance putting in long hours under loathsome conditions so that some sleazy corporate overlord can squeeze out a little more profit. It’s also one of the main forces driving the increasingly dismal performance of the consumer economy. Out beyond the bleak wasteland of corporate jobs and corporate products, there are new conversations happening between people who provide goods and services and people who want them. You can be a part of those conversations—as a writer, and in many other contexts as well.
With that, I wish my Druid readers a happy solstice, my Christian readers a merry Christmas, and my readers of other faiths the best of the season. There’s a new year dawning, it’s by no means set in stone that it’ll be as dreary as the last few have been—and you, dear reader, can play a part in making it less dreary. We’ll talk more about that as we proceed.