Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Footprints in Our heart




I suppose everyone has seen the hallmark-like poem that goes "Some people come into our lives and quickly leave, but others stay for a while, leave footprints in our hearts and afterwards we are never, ever the same."
For a while now, I’ve been thinking about writers and the special relationship between a writer and a reader. Those of you who know me have heard my occasional rant about the big conglomerates controlling publishing houses today and mandating publishing by the numbers. If anyone truly hankers to hear me get on my soap box, please feel free to ask. This isn’t it. This is more about how much – as a reader – I miss the way writers and readers used to have a relationship.
Well, the relationship was mostly imagined on the writers’ side – as I now know. During a very bad period in my writing career, I tried to walk away from it all in an innovative way. By then I knew there was no possible way I could stop writing, as such. It just wasn’t in me. I’d given up on writing hundreds of times before, but I always kept coming back. So this time I tried it an easier way – I thought. I thought "I’ll just write fan fiction. I’ll just write for myself and my friends." So, what happened? Well, I found that I couldn’t do it. The other half of the relationship wasn’t there. I need to imagine I’m writing for readers – many readers. It’s what gives me a challenge and something to aim for. And I need to know I must continue improving or be side lined. So, on the side of the author there is this – largely imaginary, because we don’t know each of you on the other side – relationship with our readers.
On the other side the relationship is more solid. Strange, mind you, but more solid. When I started reading – yes, when books were carved on stone with chisels – I read pretty much everything that came to hand. Though I thought I was terribly busy then, life was very simple. I was a teen and had limited commitments. So I could read five, six paperbacks a day, something that now only happens on my rare vacations. Most of the authors I read, I forgot. They were "good enough" but not amazing. They entertained me for an hour or so – for which I am grateful – but they left no mark in my mind. Having the world’s worst memory for names and faces, as I do, they often didn’t even leave behind more than a vague memory.
Other writers... well... other writers were not so forgettable. This doesn’t mean that I was in utter wonder of them. Most of the time I wasn’t. But I found they did something I liked. At times no more than feel or an environment they described in detail and to which I wanted to return. Sometimes characters I wanted to know more about. Sometimes an attitude, a way of seeing the world.
To these authors I returned time and time again, getting used to their world, till all their points of reference became familiar to me.
This still happens. Of course, it does. Terry Pratchett. F. Paul Wilson. Those are the "newest" authors – and granted, I read Pratchett first 17 years ago but still, relatively recently in the reader-author relationship – to become part of my mental landscape. When I am in the grocery store an comment to my son that a certain type of melon is an abomination onto Nugan, it works because he too has been in that world and knows my touchstone. When, talking to a friend, I say a mutual acquaintance is "almost repairman Jack" I’m hitting a landscape we both know. Those people have left footprints in our minds, and in the minds of a few hundred thousand like us.
So, what am I complaining about? Well... The fact that the newest of these relationships I have were formed seventeen and ten years ago.
Is it that I don’t look for new authors? Hardly. I look constantly and in all sorts of venues. You see, I’m practically publishing’s captive audience. I don’t watch TV – not a brag, I just don’t. Most of the stuff on doesn’t interest me. I might watch two or three movies a year, and re-watch another ten. Maybe. I don’t play computer games – oh, okay, mah jong but only when I’m sick. So, other than being writer, mother, pet-owner, cook, bottle washer and such, the only thing I do for fun is read.
And it’s not that I haven’t found authors I love. I have over the years found people in all grades of "I’d read more of him/her" – from "This is eminently tolerable bubble gum" to "Oh, wow, I’ve got to find his next book." The problem is that in most cases, by the time I find this author, they have two or three books out. This in itself is good, of course. I can read them all. But the problem is that after that there isn’t any other book. Those first books failed to reach an audience – more than likely thousands of people like me who never heard of them – and the author is either no longer writing, or has moved on and got a name I can’t find.
I don’t know if this is good business practice – it would seem to me it isn’t. At least because if other people react as I do, it’s starting to give some of us a fear of commitment to new authors. "I don’t want to read her. What if I like her, and then there’s no more?" But perhaps people don’t react as I do. Perhaps the bean counters are correct. I don’t know. I’m not other people. I just wish somehow I could magically return to the old days where I could find an author and know we were going to have a relationship for five, ten, fifteen years or longer.
We humans are not just who we are born. Instinct seems to be negligible in us, as compared to other animals. Oh, it’s there, but we need something else – we need those footprints in our minds, to show us the way.

3 comments:

Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Footprints in the mind. I like that.

I think of it as a shared world-view. I know I can make a comment which will set my kids off. They'll leap from Terry Pratchett to Red Dwarf, to Black Adder and laugh at me if I can't keep up with the pop culture references. :->

And yes, I do look for a relationship with an author. If I find one who makes me forget I'm reading a book, I'll buy everything they've written and read it in chronological order.

But you're right, it takes time to find them, time for the author to build a readership. Time is something the bean counters begrudge.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

indeed. Ah well... We journey on. As I said, I resent it more for the authors that I loved and can't find.

Dave Freer said...

My fave comment has to be my son and friend - both 19 - making Goon-show references and having their Post-Matric director - a fine fellow of about 35 look puzzled... and them saying "Before your time, Athol." Sweet children really. Seriously, Sarah, the current model of publishing is making assumptions about readers that are unsupported and will probably get some companies out of business in tough times. Other - with long backlist, and e-books, may thrive.