Challenging people online is relatively (relatively!) easy, but challenging people in person is much, much harder. Batgirl can tell you all about it.
I remember being at my first World Fantasy convention and seeing Daniel Abraham walk across the floor toward me and hold out his hand and I thought, “Oh sweet Jesus he’s totally going to bitch me out about that mixed review I gave A Shadow in Summer. Crap, are we going to get into some big argument about abortion?” But instead, of course, Daniel merely shook my hand and said he’d enjoyed and appreciated my thoughts on his book.
I actually stopped writing about books here for awhile after getting some angry author emails from folks who insisted my opinions of said books were wrong. Expletives were included. I just didn’t have the spoons to deal with it. So, for awhile…
…I just shut up.
This outspoken fan’s public criticism at ComicCon got me to thinking why it was I became a creator, and why it is the books and stories I write have veered sharply away from the mono-cultured pseudo European medieval folks and settings that are considered “more traditional” of the genre, despite the fact that traditional stuff sells so absurdly well.
When you’re not seeing the stories you want to read on the shelves, there are a few things you can do 1) Stop buying stories 2) Complain to the people writing stories that they should be writing something that doesn’t suck 3) Write your own stories
I’ve settled into doing some combination of all three, really. I buy a lot fewer books now, but the ones I do buy are the sorts of stories I actually want to read. I’ve stopped putting up with boring or offensive crap just to “give me something to read” and started actively looking beyond what’s on bookshelves for my media. Being connected to so many other writers now the last few years has been great – it means I often get a heads’ up on new, wonderful stuff coming down the pike. That said, I also make an effort to step outside my circles now and then and look for new people to follow – social networking has made it easy to step outside my comfort zone and find powerful new stuff.
Still, nobody writes a book the way… well, the way I would like to write a book. So I still have to write them. It’s a curse, really. You can only throw so many books across the room before you decide it’s time to write your own.
What you run into as you start becoming a creator, though, is that there are already a lot of people who enjoy working together, for whatever reason. They like stuff they’re comfortable with. It’s hard to step outside their comfort zone and actively look for new voices, new perspectives. We still have this strange assumption that if something is good, it will just bubble to the top. I have no idea why we still believe this when all the marketing folks are telling us we should write more books like Twilight and The DaVinci Code. Good stuff doesn’t always make it. In fact, there’s a lot of good stuff that simply gets lost in the screaming noise of the thousands upon thousands of books published each year. And if you can’t process everything, you have to hope that somebody else does the work for you. You rely on recommendations and a handful of thought leaders and influencers.
That’s a really small pool of people to rely on for new reading material.
If you really want to read new voices, discover new creators, and you know – walk the walk – you’re going to have to do more than sit on your hands and wait for your fraternity (or sorority, sure) buddies to send one of their buddies your way. Because I can guarantee you that if you just wait for your tiny group of homogeneous folks to forward things your way, you will end up reading, publishing, or green-lighting projects that are all incredibly homogeneous.
And when you create homogeneous stuff, it tells the rest of us that, in fact, WE should be writing homogeneous stuff too. Afterall, that’s what’s being published. I spent years trying to write stories in the style of the Marion Zimmer Bradley Sword and Sorceress stories, which I hated. Yes, I hated the stories but I kept trying to ape their style because obviously: that’s what sold.
This is the point at which you create a feedback loop. If you’re in charge of publishing and creating work, and you only publish certain people and certain styles, only those people, who tell only those kinds of stories, are going to respond. If you really want something more than that, you need to actively demonstrate to people that you’re promoting it.
I fight this all the time. I know exactly what the comfort zone is for science fiction and fantasy. I know exactly what “sells.” Writing blatantly feminist stories, I was told, was the fastest way to ensure that I’d never have a fiction career. Writing blatantly feminist stories that included a lot of swearing was doubly bad. Some people got upset when I posted a book trailer for God’s War that poked fun at Urban Fantasy cliches. But an equal number of people were just as exasperated with Urban Fantasy as I was – those were the people the trailer was for (I got several emails from people who said they bought the book as a direct result of viewing that trailer).
Sometimes you have to push the line a little to break through the noise. And sometimes that may mean that you piss people off. If you’re like me and you were raised to just grin and bear it and not make waves, being bold enough to cut through the noise is going to be really, really hard.
And I’d bet that there are more women than men, still, who’ve been raised to just shut up and wait for someone to “discover” them. Someday your prince will whisk you away from your life of obscure drudgery and make you a princess, right? Don’t agents and publishers just do the same thing… show up and tell you you’re brilliant and whisk you away to J.K. Rowling fame?
No. They don’t. You have to write something good, yes, always the first step. But after that, the bulk of you getting anything noticed is up to you.
Now, let’s be clear – I know I’m not going to sell mighty gobs of books, but I’m with a small press, and we don’t have to sell 10,000 or 100,000 copies to make money. Megacorps like DC have to sell a lot. I get that. But it’s the small, quiet voices that will eventually change the homogeneous cloud. Publish enough of them, and you start to change the conversation. Among them, they will start to grow larger and larger audiences, and those influences will begin to creep into the mainstream. You’ll reinvent and reinvigorate the body of your work – whether that’s a comics line or a whole genre – by taking some risks. Eventually, those small voices will be the big voices, and then another new set of voices will come along and change the conversation again. That’s how things grow and change. That’s how they stay alive.
If you’re a creator, I know this sounds shitty. It sounds like you’ll never break out, like nobody will ever pay attention. It sounds like you should just write the same old shit. Here’s the thing, guys. Anybody can write the same old shit. It makes you interchangeable with everybody else out there and brings you fifty million steps closer to permanent unemployment or layoff-land. The only thing you have to sell is your unique vision of the world. Figure out the vision first, and worry about how the hell you’re going to sell it to the monoculture later.
As Batgirl’s crusade illustrated, the big guys may not be paying attention, but their fans are, and at the end of the day, we pay the bills. We just need to be more vocal about what we want… and fully participate in the conversation with the work we produce…
…even if we have to claw, scream, or rant our way through the noise.
It’s not easy. It’s not fun. It’s full of sexist crap. But every time one of us is quiet, or gives up, or bows down because we’re booed at a panel, we extinguish a valuable voice with the potential power to change the conversation.
Speaking up is worth a few boos, a few spoons, and some angry email from the Internet.
It certainly has been for me.