If you were around and literate in the 1980’s, you knew Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City. You remember thinking the second-person narration was exciting, cutting edge. You lost yourself in its directness, its ability to pull you right into the story. You fell in love with the technique.
You haven’t seen much of it lately.
Every once in a while, the writing market is hit by a fad, like MacInerny’s second person narration. Epistolary novels, where the story is told through a series of documents, were big at the turn of the last century. A client who writes noir novels tells me that, at the moment, the genre is dominated by a cocktail of extreme violence and mindless profanity imported from England and known as Brit Grit.
So how do you respond to fads? Do you take them as a sign of what the public wants and try to buy in? Do you ignore them and follow your own vision? Or do you do something in between? How much should you be writing to please the market?
Of course, in some ways you can’t help writing to market. The point of writing is to give readers something they’ll want to read. This is especially true if you’re writing in a particular genre. Readers of romance, science fiction, horror, fantasy all expect their novels to deliver certain tropes, and it’s up to you to provide them. If you give your readers a mystery without a crime, detective, or denouement, then you really aren’t giving them a mystery.
But even within the most tightly-defined genres – time travel romance, for instance (an actual category on Goodreads) or dinosaur erotica (don’t ask) — you are far more likely to be successful if you offer something more than the conventions of the genre. When you bring something original to the mix – an approach to your characters that stretches the boundaries of the genre, a plot that doesn’t simply string together the usual twists – then you are more likely to reach across genre lines to a larger market. When Agatha Christie had the narrator commit the crime in The Murder of Roger Ackeroyd, she created a classic in the genre by breaking one of the genre’s main rules.
Besides, there isn’t much room in the world any more for pure, professional hacks, who crank out works entirely molded to the market and unencumbered by the creative process. There was a time when you could make a good living producing disposable, paint-by-numbers genre novels that gave readers a quick, familiar, forgettable read – check out now-forgotten writers like E. P. Roe (Victorian moralistic romance) or Frank G. Slaughter (historical fiction and medical thrillers). But the market is now flooded with self-published novels that are as good as and often better than the hackwork of yore.
Completely ignoring the market can be as dangerous as pandering to it. If you deliberately turn away from your readers to follow your own, eccentric vision, you might wind up with something no one else will understand — or think is worth the bother. [Read more…]