Monday, February 01, 2016

Selling Out to Sell Books.

Am I too harsh in my public criticisms? Am I turning away potential readers because I insist on being so aggressive about certain issues on social media?

I've been wrestling with these questions for the past month or so, ever since The Last Angel was published. Writing is a business, and it takes a lot of work to build up a readership apart from writing great stories. For all the ease and availability of finding a book, it has become increasingly difficult to find readers. Turning off a potential reader to make a point about certain "hot" issues is risky.

In the past, I never even considered the consequences of such things. I didn't care if I lost a "friend" or "follower" over something I'd written. As a writer and observer of human nature, there were certain inequalities too upsetting NOT to comment on. (Like anything to do with animal rights/factory farming and social justice)

Unfortunately, when I did comment on these issues, subtlety was, err, not my strong suit. I can be abrasive when I believe our society or certain individuals are whiffing on a topic that revolves around kindness. I'm particularly aggressive when it comes to apathy. It's one thing to not be in a position to help (though I do think we can all help in small ways), it's something else entirely when people just don't give a shit.

And yet, am I really going to change anyone's mind? On Facebook? On Twitter? Probably not. So why say anything in the first place? And for heaven's sake, why be so damn obtuse about it? If it doesn't matter, then focus on the good things and sell a few more books. Don't be so political, and that way more people can enjoy your stories. You'll have less aggravation as well.

Sigh. (This is why you do not want to get inside a writer's head.)

I wrote about this a little while ago, although I attacked it from a different angle. Artists are NOT politicians. However, we sometimes have to be a little political, especially when you have a temperament like mine, to ensure that we don't anger people before they've even seen our work.

Or do we?

As proud as I am of THE LAST ANGEL, and as excited as I am for the release of three more books this year, I certainly haven't "made it." Not by a long shot. I'm still a starving artist. Still struggling to pay the rent. And yet, as much as those questions haunt me, there is one question that haunts me more.

Twenty years from now, when I look over my career, what will my legacy be? I can tell you that it won't be about the number of books I sell. (Though I would like to sell a lot, obviously.) I think, on that day, I will ask myself if I pushed for better in society. I will wonder if my stories were not simply entertaining, but if they asked the moral questions that all art should ask. I will think back to this time right now, when my future as a writer was very much in doubt, when I had no idea if I'd sell a hundred books or a hundred thousand of them, and ask myself whether I was more worried about myself, or this world I inhabit.

And if I can't say that my stories reflected my heart about issues like poverty, racism and bigotry, if I can't say that I strove to correct social wrongs with passionate tales of courage and redemption, and if I can't say that my works were nothing more than entertainment, then I will know that I have failed.

I do not want to be a failure.

That isn't to say that I do not hope to make a good living, of course i do, and it's not to say that perhaps I could tone down some of my comments on social media, if not the message. But I will not sell out to sell books.

THE MODEL 

I've written about this before, but the first positive portrayal of a gay man was a secondary character from one of Robert B. Parker's books. A tough, wise, funny cop. To that point in my life, all I'd heard about the LGBT community was that they were a bunch of perverts. I'm not exaggerating, and if some of you grew up in a small, conservative town like mine, you may have experienced the same thing.

That was the start of a journey for me. Along the way, that enriched worldview, or at least, that wider worldview, has been expanded to race and gender.

Books like Twillight and Fifty Shades sell millions of copies, all while giving women and girls terrible role models. Role models that suggest they need to "surrender" to men and that they aren't worth as much. Perhaps these books are popular because women Identify with those characters. Perhaps they are popular because they speak to the patriarchal worldview that still grips most of the world.

But I find it destructive. As a youth worker for nearly twenty years, these are not the models that I want young girls, sisters and daughters and nieces, looking up to.

That will not happen in my stories.

Will I lose readers?

Maybe.

Probably.

But I won't consider that failure.

Starting your own business, whatever it is, inevitably means compromise. But where? In this case, selling out to sell books is something I will work hard not to do, even if the questions still plague me from time to time.

Parker showed me that one could be successful novelist, tell thrilling action stories that people loved, and still make a point to change the world, even in a small way, by staying true to his principles. And in the end, that the goal for all of us, isn't it?