Zen and the Art of Beating Your Head Against a Wall

Subtitle: What Do You Think You’re Doing?

On another forum not too long ago, a well-known editor was expressing puzzlement. There was a very fine writer whose work he’d been promoting for years, buying their stories, featuring them prominently, doing all that was reasonable to do in an attempt to get readers to understand that this writer is worth paying attention to. And it wasn’t a complete bust by any means–the writer has done well by most standards: prolific, won several awards, publishes all over the place. Yet despite it all, they have no “career” to speak of. Sure, nearly every writer in the short-story field knows their work and most have high respect for it; if you follow the sf/f field at all in short stories, you’d recognize the name. But they have never developed the readership or name-recognition that the editor thought they deserved, and why is that?

Later in the thread the editor, in my opinion, answered his own question–it’s because the writer’s stories are too different. Not too different from what’s being published in the field; so far as I can see the sf/f field has a huge tolerance for the different, especially at short story level. Rather, the problem is that the writer’s stories are too different from each other.  Tone, theme, subject matter, you name it. Any reader could read three or four of the writer’s stories, all excellent, and never once realize that they were all written by the same person.

I know we’re back in “Fox vs Hedgehog” territory here, but this is an aspect of that dichotomy worth exploring, imo, and of more than simple academic interest to the writer in question and to a lot of others, myself included. When Charles de Lint was reviewing The Ogre’s Wife he made the point that he’d read most of the stories before, but it wasn’t until he saw them in the collection that he realized that a guy named Richard Parks had written them all. I’ve spoken to enough readers and read enough readers’ blogs over the years to see that this is not  the least bit unusual.  Many readers don’t recognize bylines at the short fiction level; they just don’t register. It’s only when they’ve built expectations by following a writer’s work over several stories that they can be truly said to be part of that writer’s “readership,” even if they, by circumstance or coincidence, have read nearly everything that writer has written. And you only build that recognition by giving a reader some expectation about the type of story and reader experience that you’re going to provide.

See the problem?

While it’s difficult to establish that sort of recognition in less than novel-length fiction, it can be done. Ask Lucius Shepherd or Kelly Link or Ted Chiang. Sure, being brilliant never hurts, but it’s not enough. Can anyone read a Ted Chiang story and not know they’re reading a Ted Chiang story? His extended thought experiments are practically trademarked. Now take another writer, perhaps equally talented or even more so. Suppose her interests jump all over the place, her themes variable, her approaches distinct. Each story may work marvelously well on its own, even be an award contender, but the point remains that it is on its own. There’s no one foundation, so nothing builds.

A reasonable assumption is that a way out of this bind is the story series, for those writers who can go that way. Here are stories that by definition have some common thread with others by the same writer. Yet there’s a problem there, too. In my experience, readers who follow a story series tend to follow the series. Their readership of that series doesn’t necessarily extend to the stand-alone work or even another series by that same writer. They seek out the series stories but nothing else. So unless the writer wants to do nothing except that one series, they’re back in the same tough spot.

Ok, so say you’re caught in this particular catch-22. What do you do about it?

Damned if I know, and if you sort it out, I’d appreciate you dropping me a line and let me in on it. If your natural proclivity is to be wide-ranging, going narrow (or rather more focused) is probably not an option. Personally, I take some comfort in the fact that, if most reviewers think my stories are very different from each other, there’s at least one who thinks they’re pretty much all alike. From an artistic growth and personal satisfaction viewpoint, I hope the former are right. But in terms of building a readership and a career, every now and then in my weak moments I almost wish it was the latter.

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One thought on “Zen and the Art of Beating Your Head Against a Wall

  1. I really think some little conversational inserts between each of your stories, sort of “Hey, you got a minute, buddy?” kind of invitations to the readers (and the editor!) to come and join you in your vision and how you see the stories connecting to each other, or evolving one from the other. I recently had this work pretty well for me on my blog.

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