Saturday, January 29, 2011

Nobody tells me what anything is about.

Guys: let's talk marketing for a second. I know it's unpleasant, but when you're an editor, a publisher, or a writer, these questions become of significant practical importance.

The thing is, I hate being asked what my books or stories are "about." Like most writers, I even mentally enclose the word "about" in quotation marks, as if the very concept of aboutness -- of a story having a subject -- is somehow illegitimate. This problem started when I was young, because I was having a hell of a time structuring my work, which was a very strange compromise between realist literary fiction (inspired by early John Irving and similar writers) and surrealism (inspired, more than anything, by film) and genre (China Mieville, Kurt Vonnegut, Neil Gaiman, etc.). Of course it still is, but this was before I'd figured out how to make it work, and so everything I wrote was rather shapeless, something I still fight today; it tended to be that the only way I could get a structure going was to hide a second book within the first, or rather, to designate a point at which the story behind the story would reveal itself; the new story wouldn't be very well formed either, but the pressures associated with getting from one place to the other was energizing in a way that almost simulated structure.

At any rate, when people asked me what my books were about, I would say the first (written at sixteen) was about a guy who shrank until he disappeared. This is not very helpful. The second, I said, was about a world where all the women had died out; this was accurate and sounded maybe a little helpful but in fact it told you almost nothing about the actual story (it was about a guy who was considering a sex change operation because he wanted to be loved by other men, and also, it turned out, because he had been disguised as a little girl by his father, a Hollywood makeup artist, for most of his childhood; also, in the third act, pink starfish aliens invade). I said my third book was about "eating disorders and God." This was rather conceptual and abstracted.

I've improved slowly at this game, to the point where my current book -- my sixth -- tends to get a really satisfying, slightly bug-eyed expression from the people to whom I describe it: "It's about the atom bombs Fat Man and Little Boy reincarnated as people," I say. They nod and then it registers and suddenly they become interested in what I'm saying. This reaction is why I believe this will probably be my first published novel. Some editor is going to make that face somewhere at work, and then it'll all be over.

I have a friend who works at Barnes & Noble, who on hearing the premise said that it had the advantage he could actually sell the book: if you can quickly express what a book is "about," you can get someone to have a look at it now and again.

Writers resist this for many reasons, some better than others. We resent aboutness because it can be such hard work: hewing to a subject generally requires sustained plotting, which few institutions teach and few writers enjoy learning. The writers with the best command of plot are often stigmatized, and in the independent publishing community especially we are, it seems, eternally frozen in the adolescent moment of discovery that a novel need not have plot or even story at all. This is true. However, most of us need story and even plot, and even a fair amount of it, to generate something very interesting. And if we want someone to look at our work, it's even more important; if it's impossible to communicate what the thing is about, then there's little reason for your potential reader to prefer one thing over another.

What writers want to do instead of finding and expressing aboutness is to build brands: their own, and the brands of their publications. And so I will see notes on Facebook suggesting I check out "the new story by Steve Stevenson in Wigleaf," or whatever. They don't tell me what the story is about. They don't tell me anything, in fact, apart from the name of the writer and the venue in which the thing was published. Some people and some publishers have strong enough brands that they can get away with this: I know what a Blake Butler story or a Matt Bell story or an Amelia Gray story is enough that I can decide, on the basis of that writer alone, whether or not to click that link. And the same goes for, say, elimae: there's a fairly well-defined aesthetic there that lets me know what I'm in for when I read elimae. However, it wouldn't be bragging exactly to call myself a high-information consumer: for the average person, the concept of a Matt Bell story is meaningless and elimae is maybe a girl's name. If you're big enough to rely on brand alone, you're not reading this post: you're flying to Europe on a jet filled with greased-up topless dancers or some such. For the rest of us, identifying the aboutness of our writing is essential if we want to get readers.

Our culture of writing and publishing, however, is allergic to aboutness at every level. If you look at a given literary magazine's cover you will generally see two things: an evocative cover image (or, worse yet, a boring one) that you know has exactly nothing to do with the contents, and, on the back, a list of names you maybe half-recognize if you're an expert in this shit. The high-level literary decoding ring required to understand anything you're seeing such that you have any idea whether or not you should purchase the book takes years to acquire, and even then you're often wrong. I would suggest that it's time we start putting brief excerpts on the covers (back, and sometimes front) of our magazines. The idea that putting our names on it is sufficient is based on the false premise that anyone knows or cares who we are. They don't.

I've been thinking about which links I click versus which I don't on Facebook, Twitter, and etc., and it occurred to me that I pretty consistently visit On Earth As it Is when someone reminds me to do so. Why is that? It's not because Matthew Simmons and Bryan Furuness edit the thing, although I've had somewhat personal interactions with both and they seem like very nice guys and good writers. And it's not because people I know and like, such as Gabriel Blackwell, are publishing there: I haven't read everything Gabe has written, though I know and like him and his work. I think the reason I go is I know, in a very basic way, what I'm there for: On Earth As it Is is about prayer. Every week, they publish a "prayer narrative." What is a prayer narrative? It's whatever they publish. You can see commonalities between the stories but the commonalities aren't especially strong. The point is there's a constraint, a sort of aboutness: I know why I'm supposed to go there. In a world where my eyes are the currency and that currency is asked for thousands of times more often than I can afford to give it, that makes all the difference. Bring actual cash into the equation, as in ask me to purchase your book, and we're in real trouble: I'll definitely need to know why I'm supposed to care, and the fact that you wrote or edited it isn't sufficient as an answer.

I write this partly, maybe chiefly, as an admonishment to myself: I am terrible about remembering to say what the things I'm trying to sell or convince you to click are about. I very rarely summarize my own stories when self-promoting, and I do it even more rarely for the works of others. Sometimes this is legitimate, online: with very short works, description can often be destruction. Usually, however, it's not. And when I see other people linking to "the new Steve Stevenson story at Wigleaf" without any sort of description at all apart maybe from a very general claim that the story is good, I become suspicious, as I often am, that no one involved has actually read the damn thing: that we are publishing and sharing purely as a mode of self-promotion, that none of us actually care about each other. Surely this isn't true. But when nobody can go to the trouble of describing something such that I will actually consider reading it, I become suspicious.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Mike. Aboutness is hard for me, too. Not as hard as keeping my airborne strippers greased up (very dry skin; you wouldn't BELIEVE how it soaks up the baby oil), but still, very hard.

    Like you, I think aboutness is really important—and not just for a potential audience, but for me, too. The moment I can explain what I'm making to a slightly distracted college freshman is the moment when *I* finally understand what I'm making.

    "Story as prayer, prayer as story" is the tagline for On Earth As it Is. When Simmons came up with that line, I think we both felt the satisfying mental click that comes with understanding the project.

    Thanks so much for your kind words about On Earth, Mike. I'm happy and honored that you're a reader.