Writing, The Market, and The Reader
So I see a lot of writers on social media talking about “the craft,” which is the physical act of doo-doo-dooing onto a piece of paper or into a word processor until, eventually, a story somehow emerges. (I look at my own process sometimes and I’m surprised anything ever gets finished or is halfway legible.) It’s natural to spend a lot of time on the topic, since this is either what these people do for a living or it’s what they’re trying to do for a living.
Often the act of writing is shrouded in a lot of hype words and mystery, because writers are “wordsmiths,” “ink-slingers,” or some kind of vague, almost shamanistic language. This is because writers have to sell themselves before they sell the book, and the potential consumer base love a bit of magic and authority weaved into the authors and products they’re buying into. We all like a little showmanship, after all, and I think writers kind of want to think of themselves as having a certain level of tangible, real-world power through this act of creation. It makes sense and it’s a little comforting, too, especially in a career field where uncertainty and no promise of an economic return on what could potentially be years of time and effort are built in from the jump.
The rest of the time, I see writers talk about the aforementioned potential consumer base and the capricious, all-knowing, all-mighty market that dictates what authors, brands, and books make it in the long run. Writing isn’t magic, it’s business. To sell a product to its intended consumer base, you need to market that product appropriately. You also need to craft the product appropriately, and to do this, you need to understand how marketing works. And to do that, you have to essentially dehumanize your audience and consider the cold hard math involved in tapping into whatever market you’re trying to sell to. It’s not fun, it’s not glamorous, but it’s how you ensure your product reaches the maximum number of buyers for the maximum profit possible, given the current market climate.
Both of these seemingly separate spheres of the writing and publishing process appear totally incongruous with each other, but it’s how this stuff gets done. It all makes sense to me. But where I often get lost when navigating the turbulent waters between Book and Market, Creation and Production, Art and Consumerism, is how the reader - the target of all these shenanigans, who’s supposed to be buying into the book as well as the author behind it - just sort of disappears from the larger discussion. The reader is kind of just this amorphous blob made up of demographic information and genre interests, an assumed element that is taken for granted. The solitary reader loses themselves as they becomes part of the mass of readers, a single opinion-by-committee that sees successes and failures as a strict dichotomy.
I realize this happens out of necessity. As common sense dictates, write the damn story first, then try to sell it, then sell it any way you can. But in an industry that privileges the ego of the creator, and the supposedly divine spark housed within every writer, this entire concept makes me a little uneasy. I don’t think power to dictate the course of a work should rest in the hands of readers, because you can’t and won’t please everybody. More than that, there’s no point to it. Just accept that your story will only reach a finite number of people and write the best story you physically can. But I do believe that anybody who produces creative work - be it a book or a movie or a video game or what-have-you - is beholden, to at least some extent, to their audience. To the individual reader, who gets lost at sea amid the noise and the uncertainty.
Back when I was writing a lot of short fiction, I didn’t really think about readers. I thought about getting the story done and doing the very best I could by the work itself. When it was done, I was trying to sell it to editors and small publishers long before the idea of somebody else actually reading it ever occurred to me. When I wrote my first book - my first properly finished book after four or five false starts - I was terrified of the reader. I was terrified of the editors and presses I later sent it to, sure, but I was terrified by the idea of other people reading it. Of not liking it. Of rejecting what I tried so hard to get across. That book was a deeply intense personal story, written during a particularly rough part of my life, so a lot of that was just my insecurities controlling my relationship with my work and my readers.
With The Crashers, I began working on it in a slightly less vulnerable place, but I admit I still wasn’t quite on my feet yet. As such, my relationship with my readers, who were that potential nebulous blob at this point, was much less troubled. I wanted to tell a superhero story, doo-doo-doo, it got done. But as I started workshopping the meat of the characters and their big dumb crazy sandbox, their make-believe city and its complicated sociopolitical history, the more and more I realized that the readers were the whole point. Because I’m a reader of superhero comic books, with all the tropes and the highs and the lows, and this is intended for readers who are in on the gag. Beyond the common language of genre and medium to unite us under a banner, I realized the book was about a shared history, a communal experience that any reader could tap into and enjoy.
And beyond even that, I realized these characters could do one better than the comics, by stepping in to fill the roles that have up until recently been held almost exclusively by straight white men. They could represent the kinds of lives, identities, and experiences that comics have historically shied away from due to market pressures. They could bridge the gap between superhero mythology and its disenfranchised readers in meaningful ways, empowering people through fantasy and escapism rather than pretending their stories aren’t worth telling. That meant I needed to do this right. Not just by the characters themselves, but by the readers who may see their own experiences reflected in them. As an able-bodied white cis woman, I can’t decide the worth of personal stories on the broad spectrum of human experience, and I’m not going to claim that I’m a better judge than those that have lived them just because I have a platform. But as a queer woman with a history of physical and mental health issues, I’ve been denied the chance to see myself in superhero canon in many ways, as well.
So that’s how The Crashers came about, as I worked on the cast and their world. I kept thinking of the people who might one day read it. I kept thinking of the Claras and Kyles and Norahs and Adams and Bridgers out there. I kept thinking of poverty and Islamophobia, and racism and sexism, and homophobia and antisemitism, and incarceration and erasure. I kept thinking about the individual people who could relate to Clara as a mixed race black woman who can’t speak her father’s Spanish, has anxiety, and must navigate an America that systematically devalues her intelligence and agency. The people who could relate to Kyle as the hybrid son of respectively assimilated and immigrant parents, walking the fine line between law and chaos as an American when people won’t stop asking him “But where are you really from?” The people who could relate to Norah as an Armenian-American woman, trying to raise a special needs child alone when poverty threatens to drown her. To people who could relate to Adam as a veteran, a gay man, and a trauma survivor who refuses to be defined by the patriarchal toxicity that consumed so much of his life. To people who could relate to Bridger as a bisexual Jewish man who’s now beginning to reclaim the identity he lost in an America quick to recast him as white and straight for its own uses. To people who could look at these characters and enjoy them, for all their complexity and stupidity and good intentions.
For me, I’m now totally unable to separate the book from its intended readers. Without thinking about the people on the other side of this screen, these characters wouldn’t be who they are. Their stories wouldn’t matter as much to me. I don’t mean to say I’m going to tell stories for people who can’t tell them for themselves, because this is the internet in 2015 and everyone can tell stories. It’s not my place to speak to people about their experiences, either, or somehow sum up millions of explicitly different lives in a handful of narrowly defined characters in a make-believe city. But I do think it’s my job to try to do right by the voices that get through the din, and to latch onto those common threads that so many people in my own life can relate to. To do no harm. To tell a story without alienating people under the feeble guise of market forces.
At the end of the day, it’s my job to think about the readers, whoever they are, and ask them to trust me. If I’m going to ask for their money, earning their trust is the least I can do.