Wednesday, February 19, 2014

On The Unlikables and Writing For the Fringes...

So a few weeks ago, I read this absolutely spot-on amazing article by Roxane Gay about unlikable female protagonists. It is worth a read if you have the time. And then more recently, I read this blog from Ruthie Knox about editors in romance and what they think readers want.

I put these two things together because I think they're relevant companion pieces. I am an editor of romance and while I have never asked my authors to do the things that Ruthie mentions, I have heard some anecdotal evidence indicating the veracity of some of Ruthie's words.

I'm glad these two women wrote their pieces because it starts a conversation. It challenges us as readers, as reviewers, as consumers in this book world. Further, both these articles are a bit of a call to action in terms of pushing boundaries.

And this is what I would like to talk about today. I believe that there are agents, editors, and publishing houses out there taking risks, pushing boundaries, and trying to get something different in front of readers. I have a publisher like this. I have an editor like this. I am grateful for them both.

But, these things we want to see in books, this desire for "different" is not without a cost. And the cost is in sales. Because for every boundary that a writer pushes, for every line they cross, they sacrifice sales. And at a certain point, authors have to start wondering if the push was worth it. If they wrote too much for the fringes, if their female protagonists were too unlikable, if they crossed one too many lines and sabotaged themselves.

Because we must acknowledge an inherent truth in both these articles: People do criticize unlikable female protagonists. They do criticize you for not doing it like you're supposed to. I have found in the romance world that readers are harder on heroines than heroes. I have edited almost a hundred books now and this is anecdotally accurate from my perspective. I have similarly found criticisms about doing things different in YA books.

But today I'm going to focus solely on Fault Line because that's my truth. I guess that I should start by saying my sales are "solid". I don't know exactly what this means, but this is what my agent tells me. However, when he tells me this, he also tacks on "for a difficult issue book by a debut author". So solid-ish, I guess.

From the very beginning, I knew this book would be difficult. It involves graphic rape, it involves harsh language, it does not have a tied-up happy ending, the perpetrators don't get caught, there is no "healing" that happens in this book for our survivor. She repels. She is raped and she shuts down and she repels.

But I wrote Fault Line anyway because I had something to say to survivors and the people around them that I didn't think was being said in other YA books dealing with sexual violence. And I was blessed to have a publisher who agreed.

Now. This is what I have seen and heard more than anything with regards to this book. "It is not for everyone." I have seen this enough times now that it almost feels like a tag line to me. I have found myself saying it (though truthfully only to my 60+ year old parents). And on occasion, I find myself apologizing for this book.

And because my sales are only solid-ish, I worry I've let survivors down. Because part of the point of this book was to be able to fund workshops for survivors and if the best I can do is solid-ish, then maybe I have done them a disservice.

Which brings me back to the issue of pushing boundaries and doing something different. The reality is that I did something different. I did not pull any punches and there is a good chance that I crossed too many lines. That I've created something that is inaccessible to too many people. And perhaps the people I wanted to help the most, I've barely helped at all.

Before you think I'm defeated, let me say this: I have found support for Fault Line in the most unexpected places. Sixty-year-old librarians and church pastors and teen boys and university professors and romance readers and mom book clubs and so many writers who I never even thought would care about this book. I have had AMAZING conversations come out of this book.

But I have also had the difficult experience of hearing over and over again, "I don't think I can read something like that." And the equally difficult experience of being criticized for not taking more care with such a hard subject.

Some people wanted something from this book that I didn't give them. They wanted a moral. They wanted a male ally who did all the right things. They wanted a female protagonist who was likable and healed. They wanted a happy ending. They wanted a thing to point to that allowed them to dissociate with the possibility that this could ever be them. They wanted to feel less helpless. See: "It's not for everyone."

I will always encourage people to write for the fringes, to push boundaries, to do something different. And every note I've gotten from survivors and allies have made that worth it. But do not go into that choice blindly. Every line you cross costs something. And until we can get readers behind difference, we need to be prepared for the consequences. And sometimes the consequence is shutting a door that you were desperately trying to pry open.