Was listening to this great interview with Patrick Rothfuss over at The Sword and Laser, which Cy pointed out to me in the comments of another post (thanks, Cy!). Patrick gives me a nice shout-out, but I was more intrigued by something he says starting at about the 27:00 mark in the podcast (apologies for any inaccuracies in the transcription; I’m not a professional at this):
It’s very flattering when people get so involved with the work, but it’s terrifying too, because then people come in and they go, “I love your work, I’m sure that you won’t do this in the future.” And then they tell me what they want. And I can see why a lot of authors hole up and shut themselves away from their fans, because I can’t necessarily write to please everyone. And if I try, I can’t help but fail. And in some ways, the story that we want isn’t really the story that we want… That’s my job as an author; it’s to sometimes break your heart.
This is something I’ve been learning to deal with lately as a new author, and especially as one who doesn’t hole herself up away from readers. I wrestled with what kind of author I wanted to be, back when my books first got picked up for publication, because up to that point (as a short story writer and aspiring novelist) I’d had a very open, engaged online presence. Silencing this aspect of myself would’ve required something of a personality lobotomy — but I did decide to pull back a little, simply because there are aspects of my personal life that I don’t care to share with total strangers, go figure. And because I realized some time ago that I don’t write for other people. I write for myself, and if I’m lucky, other people will want to read my stuff too.
And… well, I can’t find a way to say this as tactfully as Patrick did, so I’ll just be my usual blunt self: I don’t really care what other people think about what I write. Oh, I care about improving my writing, so I listen to the critiques of others whose opinions I respect and/or who I know are just as committed to the craft as I am, if not more. But I don’t care how people react to the content of my work, or its execution beyond that craftsmanship level. I’m not sure any author can care about things like that and not go crazy. Some of the biggest critics of 100K dislike it because it’s not the book they wanted it to be, even as they acknowledge that it’s not badly-written. And while that’s a completely understandable response — after all, people pay quite a bit for novels these days; they expect a satisfying return on that investment — it’s also an ultimately irrelevant response, to me. What am I gonna do, suddenly start trying to write what those readers want? If I do, I’m going to disappoint those readers who like what I have written, which is a fast and magnificent way to torpedo my own career. And what if what those disgruntled readers want is something I don’t enjoy writing, or something contrary to the story that I want to tell? In that case I’ll only disappoint myself… but I won’t finish it, most likely. Writing a novel is tough even when I love the material; maintaining the necessary discipline for a book I don’t love is pretty much impossible.
So for those of you who are disappointed in me for not writing what you wanted to read: sorry. Kinda. I’m not a huge fan of fauxpologies, so I feel obliged to point out that this apology isn’t false, it’s just partial. I truly am sorry that you feel your money was wasted. Thanks for taking a chance on my book, and I wish that gamble had been rewarded. But before you write me to demand that I write what you want next time, please think about what would’ve made the experience more satisfying, and ask yourself if it’s realistic to expect that of me as an artist and an individual (as opposed to a factory deliberately trying to appeal to the greatest common denominator of tastes). And consider, as I think Patrick suggests, what you really want from your fiction. Is it formulas, something customized to your precise preferences, the same great experience you had last week? Do you want exactly $7.99 worth of happiness?
Or do you want to be surprised?
Because those surprises will not always be pleasant, if so. They won’t always be what you expect, or even what you want. That’s the risk inherent in art. Some of it will exalt you; some of it will frustrate and anger you. If it doesn’t do these things, or if some quality of how it’s crafted interferes with its effect, then I’m not doing my job, and you’re welcome to take me to task for that. But if you finish one of my books and think to yourself, “Why did she go in that direction?” or “I can’t believe she killed [character X]!” or “That wasn’t at all what I expected it to be”… Well, then, good. That’s how you’re supposed to feel. And I’m glad, not sorry, for that.