My job is to break your heart.

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.

13 thoughts on “My job is to break your heart.”

  1. Love this.

    I had a similar realization from a reader’s viewpoint recently. I realized that I had to let go of an author, who used to be a favourite of mine, because her books hadn’t been making me happy for a long time, and no amount of self-righteous indignation was going to change that. She wasn’t going to return to writing the books I loved, no matter how long I waited.

    I still feel that she broke a promise made in the first books of her series – that this series would be X kind of fantasy and she changed it midway through the series to Y kind of fantasy. That might be a branding problem though – that the author outgrew her brand and I couldn’t follow her where she took the new one. I just wish, she had finished her series in the old style. Sigh.

  2. Wow. I loved this, and on a self-involved level, it was something I really needed to hear right now, for my own writing.

    At the risk of sounding sycophantic, I love what you’ve done with your novels and count myself a fan. And if you end up breaking my heart, that’s okay; sometimes I need that to feel alive.

  3. Oh, forgot to add:

    The way you ended The Broken Kingdoms was fabulous, far more powerful than a traditional HEA could have been in that particualr situation.

  4. Monika,

    Re the author you had to let go: a perfectly valid reaction. I’ve done it too, though mostly when authors suddenly go fuckmuppet on me. I’m more tolerant of content and style changes — though I’m not sure that’s a common reader reaction anymore. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve never really agreed with the whole recent effort that marketers make to treat an author as a brand. The brand concept assumes that authors will provide a consistent product — that their style and skill won’t change, that the material that interests them will always be the same, that they’ll always write the same kind of book, over and over. This trains the reader to expect that sameness of experience, and to feel angry, even betrayed, when an author simply does what authors do, and experiments or grows. It’s one of the places where the commercialism that the industry requires conflicts with the freedom that the artist requires. Granted, the artist who wants to make money off her writing has to consider these commercial elements. But books will never be just products, and readers shouldn’t really expect them to be.

    That said, glad you liked TBK!

  5. I read Stephen King’s Misery back when I was a teenager, but I really didn’t think people would be that selfish to make such demands to an author. I have problems even mentioning to an author that even though I deeply admire them, that I did not enjoy their book.

    Authors write stories from their hearts. They are artists. It is not for an audience to say what is in an author’s heart.

    That being said, thank you Ms. Jemisin for being brave enough to interact with your audience and not squirreling yourself away from us. You were the first author I had enjoyed that was brave enough for such acts. It is much appreciated. And I apologize for those of us in the audience that have the audacity to ask such selfish questions.

  6. Hello! Love both your books, especially because they were so surprising. As a life-long lover of books, and reading… I feel the adventures that our favorite writers take us on can sometimes eventually become redundant. It is the best thing in the world to pick up the second or third book from an author and have a completely new experience. As a reader, I would think it mighty presumptuous to reach out to an author and tell them exactly what I expect for a story. To me, that defeats the purpose of reading other peoples work. My personal opinion is that there are books which we love, because they revisit favorite or beloved characters. But the stories/novels that stick out in my mind or stay with me are the ones where the journey of the story is so completely unexpected. I loved that about “The Broken Kingdoms,” and cannot wait for the follow-up.

  7. Heeey, glad you enjoyed the podcast, Nora! I agree that I found that comment from Pat very interesting too, but I was thinking along the lines of fans complaining/begging/wheedling for a happy, death-free ending for their favorite characters—which would make us feel happy, but would it end up leaving as much resonance as that incredible/impactful/unforgettable heroic death that would really have wrapped a particular character’s story arc up correctly? As a fan, I want the death-free stuff, but I can recognize that, for instance, the TV anime adaptation of a certain, older CLAMP series wouldn’t have had even a FRACTION of the gut-wrenching, emblazoned-forever-in-my-brain impact that it did have if the hero hadn’t died in the way he did at the end. (lol, trying to avoid spoilers, just in case you haven’t seen this series—but you’ve seen everything CLAMP, right?).

    But the way you were talking about the whole “readers not getting what they want,” it sounds more like people were complaining to you about things outside character deaths (especially cuz, who really dies at the end of 100K that we didn’t want to die? I thought everyone got their just comeuppance. And the important thing, of course, is that Sieh didn’t die~~ :D). I know there are some silly fantasy traditionalists out there who can’t handle butt-kicking women and sex-from-a-woman’s-POV in their fantasy, etc, so I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess that the nature of the complaints to you had more to do with these topics? I knew there were probably some idiots who thought like that, but did they actually write to you and complain??? @___@ Wow, talk about immature. And pathetically narrow-viewed. Nora-sama, you are ABSOLUTELY right to ignore people who complain about things like that. That, as you said, is what *attracted* me to your writing, what sets it apart in the world of SFF and is helping to break down those “taboos” that some members of the SFF old guard can’t seem to handle. Sorry, boys, but we women are here to stay in SFF! And whether it aggravates your masculinity-related insecurities or not, we are going to talk about sex, about how women ARE sentient and aware during sex (yes, reacting, being pleasured, and *gasp* judging!) –so get over it, boys!! >:D

    Lol, so anyway~~ I’m sorry if you really have had complaints from readers about things like this, but I really am glad you have a thick skin and are going to forge ahead and continue being true to yourself. Breaking down barriers sure is tough work, but I hope you know you’ve got a lot of supporters out here too!

  8. Well, my heart wasn’t broken by HTK or TBK. There were elements of both novels that I personally would have done differently, but that’s just a part of being a creative person and looking at all the angles of a story through your own filter/lens. Didn’t change my enjoyment of the stories one bit.

    I usually only walk away from an author when there’s something that I deem a technical issue that resulted in my not enjoying the novel (e.g. superfluous and unnecessary plots, paper-thin characters, lack of focus/direction). And even then, I usually still read ’til the end in the hopes that the book comes back round and starts to appeal to my delicate sensibilities. :)

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  11. I love this post.

    What’s interesting to me as a writer is that a lot of people can’t seem to distinguish between a content/execution complaint and a craftsmanship complaint. I remember way back when I started out, one of the first bits of negative feedback I got on a story was from a person who told me he wanted to like the story and it was well-written but it had too many lesbians in it.

    I told him that I was writing the story I wanted to and that wasn’t going to change and got a long-winded rebuttal from him about how I needed to learn to take a critique. I told him that he wasn’t giving me a critique, he was complaining about the content and invited him to critique the writing if he wanted. So he rephrased his original complaint in terms of how having a lesbian in what he’d thought was a regular, non-lesbian story was bad writing.

    The bulk of my writing is on the internet in commentable form and I still get this from time to time: The fact that you are not writing the story I want/expect is bad writing on your part and you should strive to improve your craft until you’re writing the story I want.

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