Thursday, August 05, 2010

Being a Good Blind Date: Why we write what we write

As a Mainer, I have the utmost respect for Stephen King and his wife Tabitha for their charitable work to help the less fortunate in my home state. I’m also a fan of the great man’s prose.

Someone once said to me, “Why do you think he never writes anything literary?”

We’ve had the literary-versus-genre debate before. You know I don’t think there is a difference, but that isn’t what I discussed with my friend. I took umbrage with the question for a different reason.

“I don’t believe most writers work that way,” I said.

When I teach characterization in fiction classes, I often tell students that anyone who can make you think a car is going to wipe out a town or a dog is out to get us all, has to be developing characters that readers truly care about, because the level willful suspension of disbelief necessary for King’s books to succeed make my PGA-Tour-player-turned-amateur-sleuth concept seem commonplace. Anyone who has read SALEM’S LOT knows Stephen King can write. But I don’t believe it’s a matter of deciding whether to write “literary” or “popular” fiction. In fact, I don’t think Stephen King (and you can read his book ON WRITING to see for yourself), or many of us, have much say in what we write. Most of us write the stories that come to us. Poet Lucille Clifton insists, “Poems choose me. I don’t choose them. But I know it when it happens.”

Case in point, Tess Gerritsen, a New York Times best-seller and good friend, and I discussed sales figures at a slow book signing (usually signing with her is like sitting next to a Jonas brother). I told her the sales for one of my Jack Austin novels was 3,000 to 4,000, and she said, “That’s actually very good.”

I was dumfounded and asked her how many copies she had to sell to make the NYT list. She explained that the lowest figure she’d sold in any week she’d been on the list was 5,000. But, she went on to explain, 4,000 copies was decent because of the type of fiction I was writing: I had chosen to basically alienate the typical fiction-reading audience, which she said, was female. (Stereotype? I don’t know, but Tess isn’t the only one to tell me women buy more fiction than men.) And, as Tess pointed out, I was writing tough-guy novels—tough-guy novels about golf, no less.

Obviously, this market analysis is oversimplified, and there are exceptions (Michael Connelly is the first to come to mind; there are many more). However, none of it matters, because it didn’t bother me then and it doesn’t now. I wrote five Jack Austin novels because I love golf—the integrity of the professional sport, the purity and metaphysical aspects of the game, and I liked the character. I grew up on Raymond Chandler and Robert B. Parker, so the sum total was probably predicable.

But it was never conscious.

I mentioned this news article, “Prison dads learn meaning of 'father'” (USA Today, 6/19) last week. I’m still working on a short story that that the article triggered. As father to a 12-year-old, a 9-year-old, and a 21-month-old, the story represents my greatest fear: being separated from my family. I only needed to read half the article to realize there was a story in it for me. Yet I don’t feel like I picked the story, it picked me. It’s like answering the phone and accepting a blind date.

I won’t know if I’m a boring date until I finish the first draft.


Heading to a cabin in northern Maine for a week, so I’ll be “off the grid” next week. I’ll take lots of pictures.


Gran said...

Interesting post. I live in Seattle, home to many male geeks (some in my own family), and I peek at titles during my daily bus commute. I do see more women reading fiction on the bus, but some guys reading fic as well(although not as many). And a lot of men and women reading computer books, mostly higher level stuff, not too many of the "dummies" books.

The fiction I see being read is "popular," mostly, with some Jane Austen and Salman Rushdie books. King, Gerritsen, Parker, Connelly,etc.

Rick Blechta said...

Love your redesign of the blog, John. Please tell your daughter thanks from the rest of us!


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