Lately, I’ve been thinking about who I write for.
Unfortunately, Amazon has a fresh metric by which authors can look to see if they are actually writing for anyone, “Author Rank.” The Top 100 authors are found in a publicly available list that changes hourly. As of this writing, the #1 and #2 slots are controlled by erotica authors E.L. James and Sylvia Day.
But the Amazon algorithm goes much deeper, and authors, regardless of their status, can see their individual rankings as part of the Author Central program. Carolyn Kellogg at the LA Times collected some writers’ reactions from Twitter, including this one from young adult author, Maureen Johnson, “Are you an author? Check out your Amazon Author Rank at Amazon Author Central. Or stick your hand into this woodchipper! CHOOSE NOW"
The headline on the article is: “Creating more neurotic authors: Amazon’s Author Rank.”
I’d actually quibble with this construction. The sum total of neurotic authors has not increased because it is already equal to the total number of authors. Author Rank has just created one more thing for the neurotic to obsesses over.
My own overall Author Rank looks like the EKG of a misfiring heart, with an all-time peak of 59,606, down to a nadir of 161,507. These two figures came three days apart. I’m wondering what I did wrong to get passed by over 100,000 authors, like, did I mistakenly post a video of myself to YouTube eating someone’s baby, with the headline, “History’s Greatest Monster”?
Because Amazon is the true evil, they provide multiple subcategories for one’s Author Rank. For example, in “Literature and Fiction” for physical books, I am currently ranked 19,109. For “Kindle Books > Literary Fiction” I am 4,609.
That one’s my favorite. I’m never going to be invited to the Top 10 table with Patterson, Rowling, and Grisham, but at 4,609, if the authors of the world are meeting at a mid-sized arena, I can at least get an invite.
In a recent meeting of my fiction writing course, one of the student authors suggested that concerns about submitting a particular type of story to the class had caused some psychic disturbance. This is a common occurrence in fiction “workshops,” where it becomes a temptation to tailor one’s work to the group you know will be reading it. The allure is obvious. Authors, even student ones, are neurotic, and we all crave approval and fear judgment.
I got on my high horse. I don’t remember my exact words, but because it’s a speech I deliver every semester, I said something like: “You’re not writing for this group of 20 people. You’re trying to engage every sentient creature in the known and unknown universe. If they can read English. They are your audience. We want our stories to be world-destroying.”
My intent is to get us all thinking big, and believing that our words and stories matter, even when the evidence (Author Rank: 161,507) is to the contrary.
“Reach for the stars, and if you miss, you’ll land on the moon,” and all that jazz.
The next week, another student came to class and showed me this quote from John Steinbeck’s “6 Pointers” on writing, as culled from a Paris Review interview:
“Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person -- a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.”
It’s hard to argue with that. In fact, I agree wholeheartedly with the advice, even though it seems to contradict my own.
Except that, upon consideration, I don’t believe there is a contradiction, because there is a difference between intent and practice.
My intentions as a writer, are to go both as deep and as wide as possible, not just to be known, but to burrow into the marrow of my audience, to alter their DNA with whatever I have to say. Part of this is a function of ego (there’s lots of ego wrapped up in teaching as well), but the more important part of it is for me, to fuel my own drive, to remind myself that what I’m saying may be (probably won’t be, but may be) read by anyone and everyone, and if that’s the case, I better make it as good and interesting as possible. It is like a mother's warning to put on clean underwear before leaving the house, lest you get in an accident. While I am all too aware of the limits of my talent, it is those limits that require me to write up to and beyond my abilities.
These intentions turn into something different, however, when it comes to putting them into practice.
Because Steinbeck is right. Trying to speak to every reader at the same time is a recipe for either paralysis or muddle. To attempt to write for everyone, I must write for someone specific, and what I’ve learned over the years is that my best audience is me, and that I write my best when I write for myself.
The hope is that having satisfied myself, what I write will connect with others many many others, but of course, this is never the case. (Actual quote from an Amazon customer review of my novel: “I actually get annoyed every time I see it on my bookshelf.”)
Because I am weak and needy, things like Amazon’s Author Rank, or Inside Higher Ed’s “most viewed” box or customer reviews at Amazon or Goodreads distract me from this best approach. We have scoreboards now, and it’s tempting to write about the things that do well on them, be it erotica, or the championing of adjunct faculty.
It feels like a genuine Catch-22. By chasing viewers/audience, I run the risk of moving further and further away from what compels me to write. At the same time, writing about what compels me often doesn’t make even a blip on the scoreboard. Worse, I could spend lots of time on a long project that doesn’t sell. It would be great to find the sweet spot where these things intersect, but who could possibly figure that out?
I wish I could give my students some listy bit of wisdom about negotiating these things as writers, but all I can conjure is Dante, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”