What the customer wants

Hello, readers –

Clearly, I’m taking everything too seriously at the moment, a recognized symptom of being an author with a novel circulating amongst editors. Completely normal, I tell you.

Case in point: the other night, some non-writing friends (yes, I do have them) and I went to see Book-It’s stage version of Edith Wharton’s THE HOUSE OF MIRTH. Since THE HOUSE OF MIRTH is a favorite book of mine, one I first read in the heady days right after I discovered MADAME BOVARY, I dragged my friends to opening night. The world premiere, no less.

If you live in the greater Seattle metro area, and you’re not familiar with the Book-It Repertory Theatre,do yourself a favor and check them out. Their work is intensely gratifying for writers, because they don’t do plays per se – they adapt their favorite short stories and novels for the stage. Their two-night production of John Irving’s THE CIDER HOUSE RULES was so impressive – and so faithful to the book – that it made the movie version that came out a few years later seem as though the screenwriter had only skimmed the original. And who wrote that screenplay, you ask? John Irving. He won an Oscar™ for it.

Have you ever read THE HOUSE OF MIRTH? It’s about a very beautiful woman, Lily Bart, a gem of the right kind of parentage to get invited to the right parties in New York in the 1890s. Lily has no money of her own (and no one in her social circles would dream of working, or even dressing badly), and so must marry well. But Lily really doesn’t like the prospect, and so keeps messing up her increasingly depressing prospects by strategically unwise decisions, such as speaking her mind occasionally and not blackmailing people she really should be blackmailing in her own self-interest. I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, because it is genuinely touching, but suffice it to say, it’s not a laugh riot.

Wharton was, among other highlights in her long literary career, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, and is cherished by those who know her writing as the mistress of repressed passion. Unfortunately, her work tends to be dismissed by those who have NOT read her as prissy, an assumption that tends to cover the work of most women writers prior to Anaïs Nin, alas, as though the Victorian Age retroactively threw a blight over the sensibilities of all females from the beginning of time to the 1920s, at least those who might conceivably have picked up a pen.

This is a pet peeve of mine, so I’m going to digress for a moment. The #1 best-selling novel of the 19th century, Mme. de Staël’s CORINNE, concerns a struggle between two lovers: he wants her to give up her career (she’s a celebrated poet) before he marries her, and she refuses; the novel is so sexually charged that it was Lord Byron’s standard gift to his lover du jour.
The modern potboiler was invented by Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823); her work was such a cultural phenomenon that Jane Austen wrote a parody of it, NORTHANGER ABBEY. Actually, if you are looking for lurid subject matter, look no farther than the works of Aunt Jane: if memory serves, her novels include at least three illegitimate children (two in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, one in EMMA), four illicit sexual affairs (one in MANSFIELD PARK, one in PERSUASION, two in SENSE AND SENSIBILITY), a couple who lives together without being married (PRIDE AND PREJUDICE – yes, you read that right)… And if you really want to see bawdy, check out the work of Aphra Behn, 1640-1689!

Okay, that’s out of my system now. Suffice it to say, our time does not have a monopoly on sexy writing, and I have scant patience with people who dismiss anything written before they were born. So there.

Now, I know THE HOUSE OF MIRTH very well; I am a huge fan of how Wharton uses details about clothing and room décor to convey both internal emotion and collective notions of propriety. (Her first publication was a nonfiction work on interior design.) I was prepared, therefore, to have an emotional reaction to the story, especially the part where Lily stands up for her own principles, is misunderstood by the people around her, and refuses to stoop to their level in order to save her own pretty skin. Like most readers, I suspect, I would like to think I would have done the same thing in similar circumstances.

So I was all busy meditating upon my own virtues, as one does, after the show was over, when it hit me very hard: when I first read this book when I was in junior high school (Robert Louis Stevenson Middle School, no less; yes, the Stevenson who once memorably compared writers to filles de joie), one of my big fears was that I was going to grow up to be merely what was then beginning to be called a people-pleaser, someone who was entirely dependent upon what other people thought of her. Essentially, Lily Bart made her living as a people-pleaser, an occupation that can eviscerate the soul in the long run.

And it struck me that in a lot of ways, writers are like those decorative women of the 1890s, constantly primping in order to attract the right husband. Only in our case, we dress up our work to catch the interest of agents and editors. We need to get married to them, contractually, in order to have even a chance of success. But the agents and editors are not, by and large, looking to fall in love with a book when they first encounter it, but only for its potential market value.

They want a mercenary marriage, whereas we do it for love.

It’s hard to accept that about one’s own work, isn’t it? But it’s true: even the agents and editors most devoted to the literary arts are not in a non-profit business; they will only take on what they think will sell, and sell quickly. And to writers, who often devote years or even decades to polishing their works of art, that can seem a little, well, sordid. We want to be loved for our talent, not just our momentary market appeal.

And that’s why, I think, so many writers come away from their first writers’ conferences seriously depressed. Almost everybody walks in wanting to believe that the agents and editors are there to fall in love with talent. But the only way to fall in love with a writer, really, is to read her work on the page. Instead, you get judged on a three-minute verbal pitch; essentially, it’s the publishing world’s version of speed dating.

It’s a little hard on anyone who walks into a conference expecting romance, rather than commerce.

That’s not to say that there aren’t agents and editors out there who love good writing, and are eager to find the next great talent — there are many who answer that description, and those most serious about it often attend conferences. But one of the most sensible things you can do for yourself before your next conference, one of the best ways to keep yourself from feeling hurt in what is invariably a very stressful situation, is to figure out how to describe your work not as someone who loves it would, but as a marketer would.

I know; it’s crass, and I hate to recommend it to you. But it will help you get a fairer hearing for your ideas. If you step into a meeting with an agent or editor without knowing who your target audience is, for instance, or why your book would appeal to that market better than any other book currently on the market, you will not be pitching in the language of the industry. You will be speaking the language of love, and that does not necessarily translate well.

Again, I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but now that agents are every bit as tough to court as editors have ever been (and in some cases, significantly tougher), a writer has to be more than a talented wordsmith: a writer has to be bilingual, able to talk about her work both as art and as commercial product. And being a smart marketer, contrary to popular opinion amongst the unpublished, does not make a writer either a sell-out or a bad person: it merely makes her more likely to succeed.

Fear not, my friends: between now and the PNWA conference, I’m going to be giving you tips on how to speak that language. Perhaps not fluently, but enough to get your foot in the door.

In the meantime, keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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