Sike! (yourself out)
on knowing your audience, Scenes From an Open Marriage, experimental work, nylon, and burning for you (in both the Jonas Brother and Bridgerton way)
Listen, I’m not an outliner, but I love a plan. I’m a mapper, a trek through the sewer kind of writer—a “too much and not in the mood” (Thanks, Virginia Woolf & Durga Chew Bose) so lets put it all down and then either shave it back or break the lines and paragraphs so that it looks like it’s coming out in smaller portions. Then let’s make a wasteland of white space. That’s where the real cutting is, when I have to make space for the place where someone else can breathe.
That point, at which I think about someone else, is the point I know it’s not quite mine anymore and it’s becoming some other thing. There’s an immediacy at that point, an urge to make it mostly no longer mine, to let it go. Most of us (admit it!) are lying to ourselves every time we sit down to the page, or at least pretending we’re just “artsy-fartsing”—”publishing, who is she?” We’re doing the art, we’re doing our craft, we’re just seeing what happens.
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Yea, yea, okay.
The truth is that whether or not someone else is going to read the thing is hovering there all the time. We back into corners, we enter long hallways of our own subconscious, we try to find the room with the least amount of light and we write, write, write. But the stranger at the door is always there. (horror!) And while I don’t condone acknowledging their constant ringing in most drafts, I do think there’s a point where we have to admit to ourselves that someone is going to read the words we’re attempting to screwball together into an idea that won’t be perfect, but will be ours (for the time-being).
Acknowledging that you’re writing for an audience (even if you say in every interview that you wrote the book for your fifteen year old self, which is in fact an audience) changes the way something is written for the good and the bad. I, like the whole internet, loved Jean Garnett’s recent essay in Paris Review, Scenes from an Open Marriage. It made me a little uncomfy, and a little wanton, and a little desperate to get to my own page, but the comment that I found most fascinating about it after reading through tweet reactions is that folks claimed that Garnett had assigned no moral compass to any of the actions in the piece. Each scene didn’t have a tell. There was no attempt to make readers lean one way or another, no judgment.
Obviously this is the skill of a great writer because so often in nonfiction I find in early drafts I’m trying to convince myself of something, or starting somewhere on the defensive. Most of the time I’m simply writing to see the sounds I can make, but when I know I’m getting meaty, reader expectations drone-in and I actively have to find ways to turn them off in my brain to continue writing. I’m not writing towards, I’m writing “contrary to _____________.” Maybe not even that, I think I’m just always writing with something to prove. (Is this the part where I reference the tiktok about how I’m healing my inner child through writing because I had to fight to be heard by my dad growing up?)
There was a lot of talk in my MFA program about not acknowledging the audience. And then a lot of questions in workshop about “who is the audience for this piece?” We’re asking it whether we realize it or not. And that’s partly because all of publishing’s structure is built to answer that question. The way we section our bookstore, the way we categorize books down to searchable terms for Amazon, the amount of work (umbrella) words like “experimental” and “hybrid” and “braided” are doing to try to develop a way to talk about work that defies the scope of what already is.
(If you want books that fall under the umbrella terms—what is it exactly—in really beautiful ways, might I recommend Jehanne Dubrow’s Taste A Book of Small Bites, Kristine Langley Mahler’s Curing Season: Artifacts and Emma Bolden’s The Tiger and The Cage?)
We all joke about everyone’s obsession with Maggie Nelson, but I would love to read an interview where she talked about her perception of audience throughout drafting, polishing, and publishing—how large do they loom at her shoulder (and has it changed throughout her career). If she has talked about this, link it in the comments please! This is a question I would love to hear from any writer, honestly.
And while I think these questions of audience are important—your sales team at a big four publisher is probably going to fuck with your title because from a sales perspective it needs to pull more weight to bring in your audiences than being ambiguous and creative—I think we ask the wrong questions about audience, or at least we ask them with this flubber-substance of an audience in mind.
Here’s an example: last week I was talking with a brilliant editor at Flatiron, Nadxieli Nieto about how I don’t represent a lot of commercial books, that “I’m not trying to reach the Target shopper and lean much more literary,” I think, were my exact words. And she sort of called me on it in the nicest way. Saying something like “but the Target mom doesn’t need beautiful writing alongside their page-turners? They don’t deserve that?”
And y’all, I had to CHECK. MYSELF. Because of course they do. Every genre deserves “beautiful writing.” And while I don’t think of myself as a commercial agent, I do veer into upmarket sometimes (shout out to Maureen O’Leary, my favorite!) by simply saying this, I had restricted the boundaries on what the books on my list could do before I even sold them? Would I love if these books ended up in Target? Uh, yea. And who’s to say they can’t? Oh, right, it’s me, sikeing myself out before the book even gets in front of editors. It’s your agent, publisher, and publicist’s job to reach your audiences, but it’s NOT their job to do a self-fulfilling prophecy or put limitations on your book’s audiences. And it’s not yours either.
(You know what Target regulars should absolutely read though? Almost Deadly, Almost Good by Alice Kaltman, *a chefs kiss of surprise and delight*)
Do I think you should know your audience? Yes, in a way. Do I think there are better questions to ask than “who is the audience?” or “what genre is this?” or “what’s my demographic?” in order to reach your audience. Yes, absolutely. Do I think most media outlets operate with questions beyond these in mind? No—so, we have to make them.
So, next time you look at your current project, whatever stage it’s in, I want you to ask yourself these questions:
What am I good at in this book? (Pacing, characterization, dialogue, momentum, setting, descriptions, language, emotional tenor, humor, soft moments, big moments, subverting reality, getting weird, etc).
Where do I go when I want a book that’s good at those things?
Where do I search, what do I search, where do I scroll, what do I read, where do I look, who is sharing / writing about / reviewing books that are good at these things?
What writers talk about these things in interviews as being their focus?
Which writers do I love that are also good at these things—who was talking about their book in some capacity?'
There is a lot to be said here about pandering to an audience (white gaze, male gaze, cishet folks, Eurocentric…) and a lot of writers who speak on this much better than I can, but I do hope to try to be more specific in another newsletter about ways to counteract these near-automatic modes (& expectations) in publishing and marketing. In the meantime, I love what Taija Isen wrote for TIME, this profile of Chris Jackson in the NYT, Brian Lin in LARB (which isn’t necessarily about publishing but is important to this discussion), Lili Loofbourow in VQR, Baldwin’s collected (& The Fire This Time: A New Generation of Writers Speak About Race), Madhuri Sasti for BITCH (rip), Lavinia Liang in LIT HUB, Matthew Salesses interview in Creative Independent (and his book Craft in the Real World), and Ross Gay on OnBeing about Book of Delights, and also the (SO DESERVED) success of Deesha Philyaw The Secret Lives of Church Ladies (which I hope to do a publicity deep dive on in an upcoming newsletter).
An example for me is that I really like the vibe of Nylon (and sigh, Gawker). I like the books they cover, I like the way they cover them, I like the interviews, I like the recent design change, it’s all a vibe for me. (If you want a book that’s TOTALLY got this vibe, might I suggest The Enhancers by Anne K. Yoder?)
(Just look at this home page, purrrrr).
So, I look at their media kits sometimes when I need a reminder of who I’m writing for. Nylon’s media kit is here.
For every media outlet I want to be in, or I want clients to be in, I look at their essay / article / story / interview / media titles to think about how I should pitch my work, and the work of my clients (IF that’s their aesthetic). What are they publishing and how are they leading readers to it (with the title / header / subtitle?), what are the pull quotes they’re using? I look at how they’re writing something and sometimes in my pitches I mirror the style. Because I want that audience.
I know this feels really smarmy. But I did the art, y’all, and now I need to do the marketing. I did the writing in my little notebook, with my little G2 pens, in my little office closet, and now I need to focus on the sales, the pitch, the audience. Thinking about audience shouldn’t scare you, it should inflame you to write towards (who?). It shouldn’t engulf you, but it should make you burn.
Because that, friends, is how you want your audience to feel about you when they pick up and finish your book.
I can finally also tell y’all that my partner is leaving corporate America and moving into the high school classroom to teach computer science. I am very proud of him and what he wants to do for our community, but we all know what teacher’s make. If you want to support us and/or this newsletter, I would love that. Links for that are at the end, Substack tells me.
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