The other thing that has happened is that the houses are much better organized about which books they are “getting behind”. This has the beneficial effect of making sure the books seen to have the biggest potential get full distribution. But it also has the impact of reducing the chances that the “other” books will get full attention from Barnes & Noble (able to deliver more outlets with a single buyer than one would customarily get from the entire indie store network). And, without that, it takes a lot of luck or online discovery to rescue a book from oblivion.
– The reality of publishing economics has changed for the big players, The Passive Voice
I ran into this article on social media. The thread in which it appeared consisted of the usual hemming and hawing about the importance of marketing and being proactive about building a readership, etc. etc.
I recently came to a realization about that kind of thinking, for I am guilty of having just this mindset for the better part of the last four years. The core of such thought patterns is that, as a writer, the goal one must have is to get more readers. It seems self-evident. Of course writers need readers. Why even bother thinking about it? Well, I'm contrarian, so I insist. Why should you, as an author, get more readers? You get more readers in order to prove to a business (like a bookstore) that your books deserve shelf space (or some other form of promotion), which in turn gets you even more readers, so you can get a signing at said bookstore (more promotion), which gets you more readers, which then you can use to convince a convention to give you a booth, which gets you more readers, which you can then use to get in good with an agent, which gets you more exposure, so you can get more readers, in order to... is this pattern familiar yet? It's called a positive feedback loop, and not positive in the sense of "good," but positive in the sense of "increasing" (bad things can increase in amount or potency, too).
This whole situation struck me as terribly mentally unhealthy. It also reminded me of part of a David Foster Wallace speech:
There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. ... If you worship money and things–if they are where you tap real meaning in life–then you will never have enough. Never feel you have enough. ... Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. ... Worship power–you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart–you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. And so on.
– This Is Water, David Foster Wallace (Little, Brown and Company, 2009)
I will be the first person to argue that writing in a vacuum of your own thoughts and experiences (impervious or unwilling to receive feedback) is very quick way to wind up as the kind of writer no one else will want or need to read. However, there is an inverse evil, and our culture encourages writers (or at the very least, speculative fiction writers) to chase it: the maximization of audience size. The axiom to append to David Foster Wallace's list above would be something like: Worship readership, and your writing will never be good enough, for there will always be someone who would like you better if you wrote some other way, and you will forever hate every story you tell, every insight you have, every idea you invent, every word you jot down.
To worship "readership" is to seek a maximization of the attractiveness of your writing, and this requires reducing or minimizing the elements that make writing intellectually stimulating or awareness-raising. Writing becomes a utility for ego-glorification, on both sides of the reader/writer divide, with writers getting good jollies from five-star reviews and readers getting good jollies from having their worldview validated or their fantasies indulged.
And it's eating us. It's eating our culture entirely.
This is the snake in our collective souls that is going to demand more and more of our time and attention until there's nothing genuine or deep or controversial or exceptional left in the world, and even scarier, I can imagine it getting so bad that, one day, people will find that they desperately need literature that has one or all of those properties, but no one will have any idea how to create such writing anymore, nor how to find any of the great writing of old (because it will all be buried under such enormous quantities of saccharine, self-indulgent fluff).
I have stopped caring about readership. I care about readers. As in, specific people.
Yesterday, as I got a haircut, my barber told me something that initially disappointed me: the copy of Transmutations of Fire and Void that I gave him for his store had been stolen. But he then added that one of his customers had commented on its disappearance, and had been upset–that customer had come to enjoy reading a short story or two while waiting for my barber, and was sad not to have been able to finish the collection. That additional detail made me the happiest writer-publisher in the world, and I made sure to let him know that I'd bring in a replacement.
Stories like that, and that's far from my only one, are not comparable in worth to a million sales or a circulation of a hundred thousand copies. I do not need to be widely read. I need to be read by people who care. By readers who trust me to show them something compelling, not a readership looking to get on board with The Next Hot Thing. Brands are fine for products; they're not fine for me as an author.
And every time I go on social media and discover a link to an article like the one on The Passive Voice, and I see the huge list of comments with everyone talking about "taking marketing seriously" and "how to build your brand," I take a deep breath, and I remember that people exist like the one my barber described (not to mention my barber himself, for letting me set my book out at his store).
As a writer, I have to care about what other people think in the form of feedback to my writing, but I'm not beholden to it, and certainly not because I might think that changing my vision to suit another's whims would lead to more sales or a broader "readership."
As demonstrated by the Passive Voice article, our entire culture is in the self-consuming loop of readership-worship. Bookstores increasingly want only those books that they know will sell en masse. Publishers only want to pick up new authors if they have demonstrated the ability to gather a following and command its members' attention (and therefore their credit cards). Writing groups tell novice writers to add more action, and not to deviate from the five-act structure or the hero's journey in the slightest, and to make sure to spell out all plot details for the reader, because readers can't grasp complex things, and you don't want any reader ever not to like you. You have to maximize your readership! Of course!
In the same essay quoted above, David Foster Wallace reminds us that, "the really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day." Wallace was talking about an attitude toward one's daily life, but I find his words apply quite well to the endeavors of writing and publishing, too. And despite all the forces of my culture trying to pull me down into the abyss of self-consuming destruction, I'm happy, thank you very much, with my writing and publishing philosophy right where it is.