I was talking to my friend Elizabeth Winthrop last week. Elizabeth has written outstanding books in just about every genre there is. Children’s book lovers would know her best for The Castle In The Attic.
We were talking about the apparent need today of publishers being able to fit a proposed book into some sort of category, the better to predict how such a book might do in the marketplace. For example: middle grade fiction about bullies is hot. Story picture books aimed at older readers—the sort of books I love to do—is beyond cold. It’s deep freeze. High school zombies, angels, vampires, goddesses is still hot, but getting overcrowded.
“What if what you’re writing doesn’t fit a specific genre?” I asked.
Elizabeth answered, “Then you’re in trouble.”
I kept that thought at the back of mind. It suddenly popped up again under very unusual circumstance. Doris and I went out to lunch yesterday at a popular Northeast Portland bistro/patisserie called Le Petit Provence. We told ourselves it would be good training for when we go to Le Grand Provence in September. Seating is fairly tight. We found ourselves sitting next to a couple engaged in an animated conversation that I just couldn’t help overhearing.
The two woman at the next table were either editors or involved in publishing in some way. They certainly knew the industry. One woman was talking about a writer she worked with. She was having difficulty knowing what to tell him about his latest manuscript. It’s not that it was bad. Not at all. She thought it was terrific; possibly his best so far. The problem was that it was totally different from his previous work, which had built up an impressive fan base.
If he were to publish this book, she pointed out to him, his fans would be confused and disappointed because it was so different from the kind of writing they were used to. That could cost him. The book might appeal to other readers. But they didn’t know or follow him, so he would have to build up a second fan base from scratch. That’s hard.
It came down to the fact that this book could damage his career, no matter how good it was. He could lose his old fans without gaining new ones. Best to forget about this manuscript or set it aside and try again with something closer to what he was known for. In other words, once you’ve created a successful brand, stick with it.
McDonalds sells hamburgers, not pizza.
It was all I could to do keep my mouth shut. Is this what writing has come to? We’re not authors; we’re brand names!
This is exactly what Elizabeth and I were talking about. If fans are only interested in what you write if it follows a formula, then they’re not really fans. They’re consumers. They don’t care about you or your writing. All they want is the familiar brand that is not going to be too difficult or challenging. They’re telling the writer, “We don’t want to grow and neither should you.”
There’s something to be said for that. The public is a tricky beast; it will turn on you. That’s what happened to two of my heroes: F. Scott Fitzgerald and Herman Melville. Fitzgerald could have gone on writing college romances and flapper tales for the Saturday Evening Post. Instead, he tried something different. Very different. The Great Gatsby. A book that looked familiar, but quickly turned into something disturbing. All was not well with the glittering society within the covers and, by implication, in the world outside. The book was a failure. Fitzgerald’s career never recovered. Tragic, yes. But had he scrapped that manuscript and similar ones on the advice of an editor or agent, would he be remembered at all?
It’s the same with Melville. He got tired of writing South Sea Island romances. He wanted to try something different, a book about the men aboard the whaleships who did the hard, dirty jobs that kept the lamps of nineteenth century America burning and the machinery running. Bad move. It destroyed his career. Melville became extremely bitter. But he never once regretted his decision to write Moby Dick.
So what would I say to that unknown writer after overhearing his editor? I’d say, “If you believe in this manuscript, go with it. If this editor or agent can’t get behind it, find another editor or agent. Publish it yourself. Could it damage your career? Cost you fans? Absolutely. But don’t think you’re getting home free if you stick it in a drawer and forget about it. How long can you keep grinding out the same material? What happens when the joy fades from your writing; when you look at yourself in the mirror and know you’re a hack. When fans tell you how much they love your books and how great a writer you are; while you know in your heart that they don’t know what they’re talking about because they’ve never seen your best writing and that you’re not nearly the writer you could have been had you only had the courage to take a chance.
Yes, you may crash and burn, just as Fitzgerald and Melville did. But the flames of those two brilliant careers light our way still.