Yesterday it was Friday the 13th and there was a full moon, so I met a friend who’s a fine horror writer and we went for a bite and a long night talking.
Of course we would have done it even had it been Monday the 19th and a quarter moon, but the whole day/moon thing was a nice touch.
We were assigned table 13 in the diner where we stopped, and that did not escape our notice.
As it usually happens in these situations, we ended up talking shop, and the discussion turned to our professional designation. Writer, that is.
Now, a common friend just branched out in a new direction, professionally, and he’s quite happy of how things are going. But we know – because he told us – that he’s getting a lot of mails and messages from “fans” accusing him to sell out.
“You are a horror writer, you should stick to writing horror.”Anonymous Know-It-All
“Details” such as the fact that one has to make a living, and maybe one also likes to try his hand at something different, reach different readers – or surprise long-time fans – are apparently irrelevant.
In this brand-obsessed new reality, you can be branded for life.
This brought up the issue of how we are labelled by our readers.
I write fantasy and science-fiction, mystery and occasionally espionage, adventure thrillers, historical fiction of one stripe or the other, non-fiction and a spot of ghost-writing, game design and blog posts. Some of the stuff I publish under an alias, but that’s for marketing reasons mostly (in certain genres, an Anglo-Saxon-sounding name sells better than an Italian name that “generates diffidence”).
I like to explore stuff I never did before – might be a form of middle-age crisis – and possibly open up new markets, and reach more people.
The variety of what I write is what allows me to make a living, but can probably cause some apprehension when somebody decides to support me on Patreon, I guess.
I might be perceived as a surprise package.
I never worried about disorienting my readers, because I know my readers are smart and have impeccable taste, and yet over the last twenty years I was asked how I did reconcile my academical writing with my fiction writing, and what would my fantasy-oriented readers make of works that had no fantasy elements.
I’ve also been dismissed as “just a blogger” (not a “real writer”, you see), as a “guy that writes games” (again, not a “real writer”), I was introduced at a panel as “a guy I never read because he writes SF but they tell me he’s quite good”, and recently I was quietly but decidedly removed from an online community I founded because I am not (apparently) a horror writer (despite having at a time been a member of the HWA).
The friend I was dining with yesterday had similar problems – a publisher asking him to stick to mysteries and remove the supernatural elements, for instance, because he’s perceived as a mystery writer. On the other hand, the idea of writing a science fiction novel or an adventure swashbuckler means for him being left out in the cold, looking for a new publisher.
This can be a serious problem if you are trying to make a living with what you write – as a writer, you might want to sell on as many markets as possible, and going through a string of aliases, like Henry Kuttner did, is a lot of work in this world in which every author needs a blog, a social media presence, and to hit the fairs and conventions circuit. Playing different fields in your own name, on the other hand, can cause some weird backlash, as we’ve seen.
There is of course a simple solution, that consists in removing any other label – I’m a writer.
That’s what I do. I write.
So in the end last night we shared a drink in memory of Harlan Ellison, who famously said…
“I’m a writer. Call me a science fiction writer, I’ll come to your house and I’ll nail your pet’s head to a coffee table. I’ll hit you so hard your ancestors will die. I’m a writer, there’s no need for any further label.”Harlan Ellison
Harlan Ellison had a point there, and it was not the one many people thought he was making.