One of the great conundrums (conundra?) of the debut novelist is this: how on earth do you sell yourself to a non-existent fanbase? The first-timer is struggling to get noticed. You put on your best suit, get your hair cut, think of something interesting to talk about, but you’re still standing in the corner of the room while everyone in the party ignores you.
Sometimes, though, attention adheres. A good review might be the spark, or a prize nomination, or a particularly interesting and musing blogpost (as if). And if all goes to plan, you get your first fan. You start experiencing fandom. And fans generate other fans because what fans do is advocate, and then you’re up and you’re running. You’re a writer with fans. Your next book has a guaranteed headstart. You’ve pushed the rock up the hill and now it’s rolling down the other side.
Any writer who doesn’t want fans is clearly mad. But how does the relation between fans and writer evolve? And how does a writer respond to popularity, if it comes? Most importantly, how does the writer maintain a sense of himself and his own voice when there are significant communities of people demanding more of what made them fans in the first place?
Damien Walter wrote a thing for the Guardian Books site yesterday about fandom, and he had this to say (among other things):
Any writer working today who can’t answer the question, “What fandom am I writing for?” may as well pack up their pens and paper and settle into that call centre job.
Now Walter makes great play about being muscular and no-nonsense and in-your-face, but even for him this was a bit strong. It’s one thing to desire fans for the work you’ve done or plan to do. But isn’t it quite another to be writing “for” fans? How is that different to writing “for” a focus group? To what extent should any writer be thinking of the potential audience for what she is writing, when she is writing it? This isn’t so much putting the cart before the horse, as asking the horse to design and build the cart.
Of course, one should be part of the same community as the fans, as Walter says. One should talk to them and listen to them and participate with them and enjoy them. Digital media makes all that very possible and very important. But should one write things according to the demands of one’s fanbase? If, of course, one is lucky enough to have such a thing.
To some extent, all writers are thinking of their audience. Those ?who write “genre” fiction have essentially signed up to write for a preselected community: horror fans, SF fans, chicklit fans, even literary fiction fans. But is this really a conscious decision? How many writers start out and say “I know, a lot of people out there like horror stories, I’ll write a horror story”? Or, should I say, how many good?writers??Glen Duncan obviously took a conscious decision to jump from literate thrillers and “literary” fiction into genre horror, but did he do that just to sell books, or because he was interested in trying something new? Can somebody really write 120,000 words or more of the quality of The Last Werewolf?entirely as a hack job? I think not.
The title for this piece is taken from an interview with Noel Gallagher in which he talks about focus groups and online fandom in regard to music. His point is basically that great art and culture never comes from the pre-packaged demands of fans. It comes from individual passion and talent and creativity.
Does Damien Walter really think Neal Stephenson’s fans wanted The Baroque Trilogy? Or that Stephen King’s fans wanted Misery? Some of the best things I’ve read in the past 12 months have been startlingly original, non-genre titles: things like Girl, Reading?or The Raw Shark Texts?or Angelmaker. None of these spoke to a packaged group of fans. All of them were products of the author’s individual imagination working within their own interests and creativity. All those authors now have “fans” (lucky devils) and must now wrestle with staying true to themselves and keeping those fans on their side.
So, no, I don’t think any writer working today needs to know “what fandom” they are writing for. The fans will either come if the work deserves it, or they won’t. Books written on demand for an existing fanbase will be formulaic, hackneyed and dull. Fans have the potential to change an author’s career twice: once when they discover they work, and once when they enforce a straitjacket on the author by demanding the same thing, over and over again.
PS: I was on the point of illustrating this piece with a queue of Star Wars fans at a convention. But as the aim of writing it was to stress the need for originality….. So the lovely picture of the fan is courtesy of db0yd13 on Flickr, who reserves some rights.