|English: Symbol of the "New York Society for the Suppression of Vice", advocating book-burning. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)|
There are two pieces of advice that career around the writing world and, it seems to me, often conflict with each other. We are advised to ‘write what you would wish to read’ and, by the same advisor, ‘write for your readers’. On the face of it, these two exhortations can either conflict or make perfect partners. It depends, I think, on your reason for writing.
For me, they often conflict. Perhaps that’s because I write from compulsion and as a way of expressing ideas, making the world aware of my thoughts and opinions on a multitude of subjects. I write because, deep within me, there’s a teacher, even a preacher, trying to get out. Of course, I have to make the best effort to disguise my message without burying it, otherwise my stories will come across as proselytising, and most readers have no wish to be lectured to. A resistance I fully understand and share.
So, for me, the idea that I can write what I want to read whilst, at the same time, writing for readers is fraught with difficulty. I love children and the young, but I no longer live in their world and have no wish to do so, but my favourite genre is one where it seems almost obligatory to write for young adults. I’m talking about fantasy, of course.
I’m currently editing the second volume of a huge epic fantasy, so far unpublished. My problem with the conflicting advice, then, is that I’m writing very much for an adult readership, not for callow youths. I have something to say about sex, nudity and the way in which organised religion has distorted the human view of these two natural aspects of life. It seems to me that I can’t, with any honesty, tackle these themes in a book made suitable for developing minds. Not, that is, unless I’m prepared to cause offence to a large part of the population.
Many adults, especially of a religious persuasion, consider discussion of sex, reference to nudity, topics unsuitable for young minds. If I’m to develop stories that do justice to the subjects, I need the freedom to be truthful in my depiction, I need, under certain circumstances, the freedom to show events, refer to actions, that might be considered obscene by many readers. Such freedom wouldn’t sit easily with most of the religious community. Though I do note that most erotic literature is produced by the US, a country with the highest number of Christian extremists. (but that’s a matter for another time).
My dilemma, therefore, if I stick to the advice I read, is whether to bowdlerise my story or whether to continue to make my tale open and honest, as I’ve always done in the past. Except, it isn’t a dilemma for me. I will, as I always have, take the route to honesty and if that reduces my readership, offends some potential readers, even loses me followers and virtual friends, so be it. Because, for me, honesty is what matters most. I’ll continue to write the trilogy for adults but place a warning there to let parents know that, whilst the content is not intended to be erotic, it does have many references to sex and nudity. That’s my choice as a writer. Such honesty of purpose is essential to me as an artist.
At the start of this piece, I suggested there were circumstances in which both pieces of advice are apposite. If you write for money, if you see your work as a product to be sold like cans of beans, then the advice to write for your audience will naturally coincide with that to write what you would like to read. Since your driving motivation will be entirely to do with numbers and with sales. Naturally, as a would-be best-seller writer, you will gravitate toward the subjects, style and language that will gain you maximum readership. If you’re writing erotica, you can indulge in any form of sexual distortion with impunity, knowing your readers will be eager to pursue their given proclivities. If you write crime, you can choose the strand that allows as much gore as you wish to portray. And if you write fantasy, you can include the necessary elves, dragons, magicians and, apparently much-lauded thieves, without ever worrying such things might be considered bad influences on young minds emerging into the adult world.
The choice is yours. To write for maximum readership. Or to write what you would like to read. If you write to honestly suit your own tastes, the former instruction is unlikely to apply. But if you write specifically as a way to turn out the next block-buster, you will be obliged to make sure that your writing conforms to certain rules and remains confined within specific boundaries. I repeat; the choice is yours.
I’ve made mine. Have you made yours?