Or… The New York Times Book Review Hates YOU, but I Don’t;
Or… Why Where Your Book Gets Shelved Determines Your Intelligence, Work-Ethic and Value to Society
That’s a longish title I’ll admit, and while I generally don’t go in for such larded vessels, in this case I’m willing to make an exception. Monstrous though it may seem (and most assuredly is), the above title sums up pretty much everything I have to say on the subjects of writing and publishing. The first line ought to be read as a word of warning to struggling writers. The second explains – in as much as an explanation of the unintelligible is even possible – why the publishing industry behaves as it does. And the third highlights our common enemy, which turns out to be ourselves.
Really – if I must say so myself – that title is a wonder of economy, precision and restraint. But maybe you’d like me to elaborate? Normally I’d refuse – principally on the grounds that my arguments tend to be weakened by exploration – but as I have been contracted to provide a minimum of fifteen minutes of reading diversion, I will betray myself and attempt to explain…
You’ll excuse me if I start at the end. It’s an old habit of mine, which I have found serves to confuse readers, making them easier to hypnotize into subscribing to my particular point of view.
You may recall that I suggested, just moments ago, that we are our own common enemy. I am speaking of book readers, or more precisely, of book buyers. It took me a long time to realize this, but it was an awakening of life-altering proportions when I did. So here’s the argument.
You know how when you walk into a bookstore (let’s say Barnes & Noble, since we all know how those are laid out) there are signs directing you to particular shelves? Go to these five stacks if you want fantasy or science fiction, those ten if you want YA, the four on the other side of the aisle for history, those ten over there for literature and fiction, these five for romance, the two across from romance for horror, the back corner by the café for magazines and journals, and in the deepest recess of the store is the shelf marked ‘psychology,’ but which you know from experience will mostly consist of books filled with sexy pictures that make you feel like your grandmother is looking over your shoulder.
Anyway, have you ever noticed how, from the minute you walk into the store, your feet naturally take you right to a particular section? Sometimes I say, – “no, no feet, I don’t want to go to fantasy today, I’m looking for the new biography of Chief Joseph.” But you know what? My feet don’t give a hang for what I want. They know how to steer me. They know I don’t really want to be looking at romance or history. Heck no! I’m a fantasy reader and that’s all there is to it. In fact, I scarcely look at those other stacks as I make my way to the old reliable. And by the time I leave I’ll most likely be carrying a book with a black cover emblazoned with the image of a dragon or orc, or possibly some otherworldly wizard, standing over the prone body of a woman in a metal bikini – and poor Chief Joseph utterly forgotten.
But how do the books get placed in their appointed shelves anyway? Who decides which books get stuck in the fantasy section, and which go in literature and fiction? I happen to know the answer to that question. The store does. Or in the case of Barnes & Noble and its ilk, a faceless corporate suit makes that decision (and once that decision is made, god help the drones on the floor if they should determine that a book is more appropriate for some other audience). Publishers can give some instruction, but ultimately the store gets final say, no matter how capricious or arbitrary. And how do they make their decisions? My theory, developed from having lurked in stores over the years, is that they do it by cover design (you didn’t think you and I were the only ones who judged a book by its cover, did you? Those metal bikinis don’t get onto the books by accident, you know).
“So what,” you may ask? “I like fantasy novels. Why can’t I just head over to those stacks and be done with it?” You can… Jeez, no one’s trying to take anything from you. But what if the book that was going to change your life – and there are books that do, you know – isn’t shelved in fantasy? What then?
Let’s examine a couple of books and try to see where such problems might lie. Book One: “The Hobbit.” Yes, yes, we all know where to find “The Hobbit.” It’s in fantasy, right next to “Lord of the Rings.” And far be it from me to suggest differently. If a book is placed where everyone can find it, it is well placed! But why is it on the fantasy shelves? It’s a book for young people, is it not? And I for one would be more than happy to have it sit with “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” in Literature (or is THAT in POETRY?). And what if “The Hobbit” was an only book, or a first book, or it required YOUR discovering it by chance? Would you? What if those darned feet of yours kept taking you to the fantasy shelves, but “The Hobbit” was in YA? Now that sounds bad!
Another case, just for fun. We all know that “Twilight” (yes, I am talking about “Twilight,” don’t be a snob!), can be found in YA. But what if it’d been shelved as horror? Would the horror fans have enjoyed discovering that book? Is it even horror? I KNOW it has vampires – simpering vampires who are stronger and faster than superman, but who are still, for no good reason I can figure, afraid of ‘humans’ – but are they the sort of vampires that fans of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” would enjoy? Rather than answer, I direct you to:
Now, the thing about both of these cases is that they actually turned out all right! The proper audiences found these books and the authors are making oodles of cash (be they dead or undead). But what books did things not turn out all right for? Which books – books you might have adored – have you missed out on because your feet – those damned zombie feet – carried you right past all the other sections in the store?
And don’t give me the whole computer answer. Of course you can find any book on the internet, providing you know to search for it. What books do we have not even the slightest idea exist?
Plus there’s that darned cover problem we alluded to earlier. What if the publisher gives it a bad cover? Or a misleading cover? Or what if the bookstore misjudges the cover and so sticks it on a shelf amongst books you’d never consider in a million years? I’ve written a bit about my own experiences with cover design (this is only partially on topic, but allows another neat link) here. http://www.melissacwalker.com/blog/2010/02/cover_stories_win-it_wednesday.html#comments. But if you’d like to see how bad this problem really is, I direct you to an essay written by a young reader with whom I have conversed a bit of late. She is passionate in her hatred of the cover for an anthology of fantasy stories by Asian Writers, “The Dragon and the Stars.” Read her objection and ask yourself why the cover in question is so offensive to her, and why the publishers might have chosen the cover they did. Hint: It has to do with marketing to the fantasy readers like me, who the publishers and stores think are being led to the stacks by their zombie feet. Anyway, check it out. http://galnovelty.blogspot.com/2010/02/in-which-i-finally-talk-about-that.html. Did you click all the way through to the cover in question? Good. Then let me ask you, would you pick up THAT book? First, it’s purple! That’s strike one for me. It’s the worst sort of cartoonish! Strike two. And the cover features a reptile that is nothing whatever like an Asian Dragon (my suspicion is that the publishers chose a western dragon to appeal to greasy-haired, pimple-faced, white suburban kids who want “real” dragons. Those are the fools who haunt the fantasy stacks, right?) Strike three, and I for one don’t even pick it up off the shelf. Who knows if there is a life-changing story in there? Not me, because I won’t read it.
Last, though possibly most important, there’s the ego problem we all face. You know what I mean, right? Things like – ‘Romance is for horny old ladies;’ ‘History is for people without imagination;’ ‘Horror is for girls with two much eye make-up;’ and worst of them all is that dreck they refer to as ‘literary’ fiction. Am I right? Who’s with me?
‘Literary’ fiction is an sickness I’ve been suffering with on and off since my MFA days at Columbia (yes, I have an MFA. But I was just a kid. I didn’t KNOW!!). My personal moniker for what publicity types call ‘literary’ fiction is, “the fiction of breathless self-importance.” You know what I mean, books with out-of-focus pastel covers, an extreme avoidance of anything like plot or entertainment, full of writing in a tone that refuses to lift itself above the level of monotonous murmur, without the least passion, complex philosophical outlook, or sense that there might be something, ANYTHING, the least bit exciting in the world. Yes indeed, those books are, as a rule, truly awful. But you know what? As it turns out, those ‘literary’ knuckleheads have an opinion about us, too! Check this out: http://www.themillions.com/2009/06/slinging-stones-at-genre-goliath_18.html. Now, I don’t mind saying that everything about Sonya Chung’s understanding of writing, publishing, reviewing and reading are dead wrong (she asserts, for instance, “With its obligatory happy endings, strict conventions, formula elements, and, above all, comforting predictability, genre fiction will always garner a wider audience than literary fiction.” Does that sound anything like the ‘genre’ fiction you love?). But here’s the kicker. She actually believes that she is the intelligent, philosophical reader/writer with points to make, and we out in the imaginative world (a term I use passive-aggressively to suggest that maybe she has no imagination to speak of) are just hacks.
Does she have any points? Of course she does. Some of us are hacks! But what she absolutely refuses to admit is the fact that none of us WANTS to be a hack. We are all trying the best we can. Same as her! Most of what we in the imaginative world write will go into the toilet of time and obscurity. But so will most of what her side of the spectrum writes! Even those books raved about in the New York Times Book Review and its ilk will mostly fade into despairing nothing. And a great many books not so lauded will come to stand the test of time – the only real determination of literature, no matter its genre.
So what does all of this amount to? Simple. No matter our genre affiliations, we betray ourselves as readers by being positively choked with prejudice. It is a disease we have right from the bottoms of our zombie feet to the greasy hair atop our pimply faces. We foam at the mouth with prejudice against different genres, different cover designs, different backgrounds (I can’t give back my MFA now, can I?), and different paths toward readership.
But I didn’t set out to be this way, did you? Of course you didn’t. So how did this happen to us? The answer is somewhat surprising, but I assure you it’s true.
The fact is…
Read Part 2 at Debuts and Reviews.
Read Part 3 at Grasping for the Wind
About the Author, Justin Allen
Justin was born in Boise, Idaho in 1974. He graduated from Boise State University with a degree in philosophy, and from Columbia University with an MFA in fiction. He is the author, most recently, of “Year of the Horse,” an all-ages fantasy-western that tells the story of sixteen-year-old Yen Tzu-lu, the child of Chinese immigrants and one of a band of treasure hunters brought together from every corner of the continent to recapture a stolen gold mine. Leading Tzu-Lu and his gang is the gunslinger Jack Straw, a figure who is as much legend as reality, as much magic as lead. Ultimately, this band of outsiders finds it must learn to live together, trust and care for one another. If they make it across a wild continent, they’ll be rich; if they don’t, they’ll surely be dead. Get your copy at Indiebound (why not support your local store?), BN.com, or Amazon.
Justin is roughly six feet tall, weighs somewhere around 185 pounds (often more, to his chagrin), has dark-brown hair and eyes, and suffers from near-sightedness, motion-sickness, and a tendency to get angry at airport personnel. His wife, Day Mitchell, a licensed master social worker, is trying to help him overcome this last item, but finds the going hard.
He can be contacted via justin-allen.com.