31 December 2008

My First Disser

Earlier in December, my sister and I were finishing some holiday shopping at Big Bookstore Which Shall Not Be Named (BB), and I placed my loot on the counter. Part of the loot were a few books that pinpointed the buyer as a writer, so the 20-something cashier asked, "Who is the writer?"

"I am," I said. "I write romances."

The cashier got a pained look and said she wrote fantasy but she'd recently cashed in. I raised my eyebrows in inquiry, since I enjoy learning how writers can get cash (legitimately). She confessed she'd started writing one of those fantasy...romances, pronounced with much distaste.

"I hate romances," she said, "but they sell so well!"

My sister looked at me, and I looked at my sister. I'm nonconfrontational in the extreme, but I was high on endorphins from bookshopping for an hour. I commented in a conversational fashion, "Why would you say rude things about romance when I just told you I write in that genre?"

The cashier reddened and tried to explain. They'd had a popular paranormal romance author in the store recently, and she'd sampled a few of the author's stories to see what the fuss was all about. She liked a few but the writing in some, to her surprise, was "so bad". She made several derogatory comments about compromising your writing for the sake of sex scenes and how that obviously had to be the only attraction of this author's work.

Everything she said dug the hole deeper. Aside from online, where trolls roam free, I'd never encountered somebody who took open potshots against the romance genre, especially after being told I write or read it. I didn't want to get into the philisophical debate with her about why people feel so free to insult romance (by women, for women) when I'm sure they wouldn't insult, say, literary fiction. I could tell I wasn't going to get through, but I was stuck there with her checking out my many purchases, and she was still talking.

Since she'd mentioned "cash", I interrupted her rant to explain some cold, hard publishing facts. A writer who wants to sell a book has to strike a balance between complete self-indulgence (writing whatever you want) and marketability. Commercial success shouldn't be our only goal as authors, but figuring out how to share the stories in our head with people who don't live in our head is indeed part of the job. It's not compromise--it's communication.

I know it's routine in certain segments of the population to deride what the rest of the world enjoys. If it has mass appeal, it simply has to be terrible since the "common man" has poor taste. This, however, ignores what authors who catch the public's interest have managed to do.

No matter what you're writing, the ability to please a wide variety of readers is a rare and precious talent. The lack of it -- the lack of a gift for storytelling -- is what prevents people from fulfilling those disdainful "I can do better" vows. That, and it's a hell of a lot harder to write a book than people think it is.

If the author who vowed "I can do better" manages to complete a manuscript and sell it to a reputable publisher, I feel sorry for her, having to compromise her vaulted literary standards in order to eke out a living. Isn't that sad? Such a tragic tale of evil commercialism versus great art. Perhaps that should be the theme of that particular writer/cashier's next manuscript.

Good luck selling it.

My parting shot to the young woman was that you can't call it cashing in unless you actually get cash. Which she had not, so she needed a new insult.

Jody W.
So much cyberspace, so little time!
www.jodywallace.com / www.elliemarvel.com
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