Monday, December 1, 2008

The Long Game

The long game (or how not to make pipi into the pool you will have to swim in and inevitably swallow some of...)

Now this is coming from someone who wishes he'd buttoned his own lip in the past, and that maybe someone had given him a few pointers...

The reading world out there is a complex one, made up of people of just about every shade and point of view. You almost inevitably can’t please all of them... For some writers, and probably publishing houses, there is a huge benefit in nailing their colors to the mast -- besides the satisfaction thereof. The benefit is this: even if you’re totally useless and publishing drivel which has no story and makes the reader’s eyelids fill with titanium... the faithful in whatever little niche you have proclaimed for will probably buy your book, partially in solidarity, partially to have their own views validated, and partially to support you with the good word you’re spreading to the ‘heathen’ (a delusion, as a moment’s logical thought will tell you). If you manage to nail the kind of story they want to read onto it... they’ll adore you. Some of the ‘heathen’ may even read it and be converted... however the vocal and enthusiastic support of your work from whatever group you’ve strongly identified with (whether it is Green, or fundamentalist Zorasteran, or something relatively ordinary like conservative or democrat) will probably put off everyone who does not like their point of view.
You are a fervent believer in party A. The questions you, the writer, need to ask yourself... my beliefs/support for A, proclaimed openly in my writing a good thing for that cause? Is it good for me as a writer? In one sense, yes, it will make the other faithful love you and feel better about themselves. But it is almost certain it will have no impact on the ‘heathen’. If that was what you would like to do with your writing... it was about as dumb as any human could be and still get the message from the nervous system to draw breath. You have limited your ‘preaching’ to the converted. Of course if you know you’re a really useless writer and want to sell SOMETHING by pleasing a sector, that’s what you may have to do.
On the other if your publisher is... shall we say over-enthusiastic or intellectually challenged (it’s kinder and wiser than ‘foolish’ ;-) )... you may have to do it too to please them.

There is one incontestable fact about the market: it is not monolithic. Let’s assume that you’ve vocally supported one of the large US parties in your books and blogs and public life. So... just run this past me again... there is a reason for willfully excluding from your potential market 2/3 of the electorate? (And of the whole population A LARGER PROPORTION - about 75%)? You don’t want their money, you don’t want to ‘convert’ them to your point of view? Check the numbers, folks. The real winner of almost every election is a fellow called ‘I couldn't be bothered (or stand) to vote for either of these guys’ (and that applies to the last election as much as the one before and one before...). At _best_ the winner got 1/3 of the vote. The other 2/3 of the electorate do not support them or care enough to vote. I don’t know about you, but I’d prefer to sell my story to 100% of the possible audience, if I can (you won’t get 100% of course. But I’ll take 80% not 10% - which what the faithful fringes tend to offer you. 10% of 300 million is still a large pool. And you can look like a successful author in that pool, if that is good enough for you.) I have faith in my ability to write a good story. I don’t want a captive audience, just a fair shake at as big an audience as possible.

In this context I can’t help thinking about Nelson Mandela. Before G.W. Bush was elected, Mandela had plainly believed he had not a hope in hell. He expressed himself in somewhat pithy terms about GW’s intellect and how he could never win the election. Mandela was due to go to the US and raise funds for Africa - principally from the US government. Already pencilled in was a meeting with the future president. He expected that to be a fellow called Kerry, that he’d been very nice to. Only... it wasn’t. To George W. Bush's credit he was enormously supportive of Africa in spite of this, moreso than any other US President had been (this is a matter of public record from many people who really didn’t like him). But there is no doubt that Nelson Mandela must have LOVED going cap-in-hand to a man he’d insulted. He must have had to drink an awful lot of that swimming pool. He must have wished he'd restrained himself earlier. He was a powerfully influential man. It didn't drown him. But a lesser man would have sunk without a trace. Are you really that influential? I'm not.

As writers we play a long game. Yes, one or two out of every hundred thousand get a quick, easy ride to fame and fortune. Maybe they’re geniuses. Maybe lottery winners are too, because there are always better genius-writers who never sell a single book. But do the maths again: if you want to be a writer, you need to accept lots of hard work and a long haul (otherwise you want to be a lucky gambler, not a writer). And if you're in it for the long haul, you need think ahead. Think of what you’re saying and how that’s going to come back to haunt you... I’m CERTAINLY not saying you shouldn’t put your beliefs and values into your books and characters, because that would make for reading-pap. But, if you aren’t the kind of useless loser who needs a captive audience and would actually like to get your point of view out and read widely, well, get your characters and story show it, not tell it... and, maybe, before coming out with gratuitous insults about X,Y or Z consider the probability that, while that is music to ears of a small proportion, the majority are not impressed (and many are not going to even open your book as a result). Was it worth it? Maybe the writer thinks President Fred is a great man or an idiot. Just what does the writer gain by telling all and sundry this? Let's see... all of those who disagree won't open his book, in which he had a perfectly good chance to prove his case. And incidentally to sell his book.

I always have to have a wry chuckle when I read a casual insult about the intellect of one of the US main party’s leaders. It may or may not be true. That’s a debatable matter, and one you won’t get me to talk about (I've a theory about intelligence and politics (not limited to any party) being mutally exclusive ;-)) ....But it certainly says the WRITER hasn’t showed great intellectual forethought, or thought at all into the effects of what they’re saying.

I've often heard it said that dissing editors is a bad move. It is. Doing the same - for no gain but to follow fashion in what has to be a minority herd - to your potential readers has to be worse.
posted by Dave Freer

15 comments:

Ori Pomerantz said...

What part of the reading public actually boycotts authors for stating the wrong political opinions?

I'm asking this as somebody who enjoys both Eric Flint's Joe's World series and Tom Kratman's A Desert Called Peace series. Both are extremely political, and on the surface(1) completely opposite.

(1) "On the surface" because both, in fact, deal with fighting against an aristocracy. Yet the people Tom Kratman trusts to fight that aristocracy are precisely those that Eric Flint expects to become the aristocrats and vice versa.

Dave Freer said...

Answer: quite a lot - if they are overtly aware of your opinions _before_ they start reading your work. We authors tend to have delusions of granduer that lets us kid ourselves that we will influence the universe simply by saying 'I support Fred'. Unless you are talking to readers who know your work and love it already, that's a delusion.

On the other hand people often label you on an assumption. For instance Both Eric and Tom are published by Baen. They as you rightly point out do not share the same ideology. They're as far apart as two people can be, you might say. Yet I've read on a number of publicly published sites and in the SFWA journal (some years back -I have the journal) that Baen only publish far right wing books and that they would never read anything by them. The last diatribe I read to this effect was about JBU - which has published everyone from Asaro to Zettel.
The difference is doing so in text (ie reader must have started book) is reasonable, wheras simply getting up on a forum and saying xyz is an idiot is going to stop readers starting.

nrvlaw said...

It's not really as simple as that, Dave, for a number of reasons. If one has a more or less large philosophical comment to make in a book, nationalism v. internationalism or cosmopolitanism, say, that comment impinges on the politics of today. There's no way around it. Moreover, people tend to have their politics in a fairly cohesive little package. Yes, one can find atheist, pro-choice, anti-gun conservatives, as one can find liberal religious fanatics who hunt fanatically and abhor abortion. But they're not as common as liberal atheists who openly loathe guns and tacitly regard abortion as a fine substitute for a sacrament or right wing religious types who think bombing abortion clinics is the only moral thing to do unless it's easier to shoot the doctors. The short version of that is that you're going to offend people if you deal with large issues and don't write pap, and there's nothing you can do about it. Even Eric has his literary-political detracters and Eric's frakking _reasonable_.

Moreover, it is not just possible but easy to offend people whom you would never imagine would take offense. We simply live in the kind of age where use of a particular word with Scandanavian roots ("niggardly") is tantamount to burning crosses on the front lawns of black churches. It's silly, but it's still true.

Worse than any of those things, though, people have largely ceased being reasonable or persuadable. You're not going to reach them with any philosophical message, however subtlely presented, with any real hope of effecting change. This is a time of extremes (and, by the way, you can offend them simply by pointing out the dangers of extremism. Trust me; I've done it.)

On the other hand, we're not even talking about 10% of the population of the English speaking world in our markets. We're talking a fraction of one percent of one percent. Under those circumstances, word of mouth may be better than anything else, and having a dedicated market base may well be more worthwhile than a larger audience of ho-hums.

YMMV

Tom Kratman

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

On the other hand... On the other than, there are people like Heinlein. Red Planet forever changed my view on what I had been taught wasn't even anything to discuss. Gun control. (I grew up in Europe. It never occurred to me anyone could think gun control was wrong.) Why did it change my view? Because it didn't set out to offend me. It didn't say at the front "Everything you think you know about guns is wrong and the fact that you've believed this means you're less than all there." No, it showed, not told, and led me there.

I don't think Dave is arguing -- correct me if I 'm wrong, here -- that one shouldn't treat big or involved themes in one's books. At least I think most of us do, and I can't imagine any of us withholding our view of the world from our writing, though in my case it tends to be the micro, rather than the macro vision. It would be like swimming in a raincoat.

I think what he means -- and what I try to do when I write -- is that if you must have politics in your story they should be an integral part of the story, not a bit of preaching on the side. And that they should be stated in such a way as to make people think, not recoil.

Of course, I could be interpreting what he's saying in light of how I feel about the subject.

And the anthetisis of what he's recommending -- at least to me -- are writers who will interrupt narration to go on at length about the current political crisis/news/politician. Found most often in mystery, these people are responsible for more books thrown against the wall than any other authors I read. And they are MUCH worse if you come across the book -- as I so often do -- twenty years later.

I.e., if you're convinced a certain president is "going to get us all killed" (and we all have these feelings at times) it might be okay to show the situation disguised enough to become "almost universal." It's not okay to state it that way, for people twenty years later to go "Oh, that was idiotic. The effect was the opposite." Kind of like what Dave meant about peeing in the pool. I know. The last one of these I read was written twenty years ago and it made me laugh aloud, which I'm sure is NOT what the author wanted. But her predictions were so ridiculously wrong. It was also totally unecessary to expose herself that way. It might be an hazard of sf but she was writing cozy mysteries.

Dave Freer said...

Tom, Sarah nailed it neatly enough with her Heinlein illustration. No-one but the faithful buys books sermons when they are sold as such by people who tell you they're preachers. C.S.Lewis on the other hand...

If you think your books are going to elicit a ho-hum response unless you hitch them to a particular wagon - go ahead. It may give you that initial boost. You can be successful in that pool, if that is your long game. But it's a reputation that sticks and limits you to that pool. If you actually want to eventually reach a wider audience, well, maybe a strategy would be to write something readers will not feel is ho-hum.

There other point I was trying to make is many authors exclude people before they even open a book. We have a politician here who appears to open his mouth to change feet - Julius Malema. He is, in spite of this, quite popular. I could refer, in public, to every time I get my words twisted up to making a Malema of it. Mildly funny you happen to be a supporter of anyone but his party. A 'stop reading' if you are. But I work with words - I could have said the same thing in ten different entertaining ways. You could apply the same in your country to the various gratuitous insults about Sarah Palin. If the only people you can hope to sell to are those who think she has high hair to hide the horns, go ahead. Otherwise you're actually wasting sales for no gain. Most of the time the person commenting doesn't care that deeply and hasn't thought in terms wasting sales for no gain. In the long game there is no room not to think about these things.

nrvlaw said...

It's not that they're going to elicit a ho hum response unless hitched to a particular group, Dave, it's that books that offend nobody, these days, are philosophically ho hum...and people who can't stand to be offended somewhat ho hum themselves. They might be really good, entertaining stories, but almost by definition can't have any impact anywhere. There's a broad spread between the arrogance of a writer thinking he can change the world with a word, and thinking, oh, I'd better not offend anybody or I'll never be able to have any impact at all.

You also have to pick where you want to have an impact. I _know_, for example, that at the tactical and operational level sundry people in currently hostile places have taken some of my tactical and operational thoughts to heart. (I'm not guessing; I _know_ they have.) I _know_, for example, that I've gotten to be fairly popular and somewhat influential at the service academies and protected military schools (Citadel, VMI, and such...there are five of them) here. I've even acquired a small but key audience (CEO level) in one of the more capable Private Military Corporations. When I finally get off my dead ass and write Training for War, that will matter. And that matters to me, to have an impact in a smaller group that I care about.

Sarah, did Red Planet change your views on gun control in densely populated, crime ridden European and American cities, or only on the frontier? If the latter, I'd suggest that it didn't make much of a change in you. Alternatively, did Starship Troopers change you in the slightest? Bet it didn't, though it did some...me for instance, while, it Heinlein's words, "Starship Troopers outraged 'em."

Dave Freer said...

(smile) Tom I'm ready to bet that you've actually never read my work. I suspect I am the least politically correct writer at Baen - but I've got away with it so far. If its pap, it's pap that has a steadily growing readership. I've been told you are very intelligent man. I think you may have to re-evaluate your preconceptions. I've read some of yours BTW.

Firstly the part you seem to be missing, repeatedly, is this was not saying that the characters and indeed theme of your book should not reflect socio-political or philosophical viewpoints. And secondly, perhaps I or you, or Eric are not skilled enough to write socio-political work without raising hackles, and merely getting people to think. But Terry Pratchett (for a brilliant example) is more than that good. I've yet to hear of anyone describing his work as pap, or being offended by it, despite the fact that it is very pointed and frequently very un-PC. And the reality is at a guesstimate 50 million or so copies sold his influence shapes the gestalt of nations. You're reaching certain key groups and individuals - who were part of your congregation anyway. Yes in your case you may refine their viewpoint. But the reality is you are rather atypical, and very few authors actually have that to offer. You're training 20 riflemen to be snipers. TP is raising divisions from the civilian population. He probably couldn't train snipers. But then neither can I.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Dave Freer, I've read a lot of Terry Pratchett, and I have to confess I didn't get any particular social message out of him, PC or not - at least consciously. The same goes for a lot of your writing.

This doesn't mean that the message isn't there. It probably means that I'm too stupid and careless to get it. If I had read more carefully I would have seen it, and if I was smarter I wouldn't have needed to read more carefully. But I'm not the only stupid/careless reader out there.

It's useful to be subtle to get past people's defenses, but it's also useful to be blunt and force people to think about subjects they'd normally avoid. I think some authors are suitable to one strategy and some to the other.

Of course, the blunt authors need to bribe some readers first, which might be the reason Tom Kratman puts a lot of his messages in afterwords.

Tom Kratman said...

Dave:

You've probably read A State of Disobedience. Frankly, though reasonably prophetic, it isn't that good.

Bet? You lose: Yes, as a matter of fact I've read RBV, et seq., and Lineman for the County. I didn't see a lot of unPCness or controversy in there. This might be because I'm simply desensitized to it, though. That said, illustrating a vile capitalist aristocracy exploiting the peasants in war is not that controversial, these last few centuries. Somewhere around here is Pyramid Scheme, but I haven't gotten to it yet.

Something else to consider is that the marker for where controversy begins is set way to the left. Star Trek, TNG, for example, was interstellar tranzidom. (At least until the blessed Borg showed up to shatter a few illusions.) Controversial? Not on your life. China Mieville, Charlie Stoss, or Richard Morgen are considered controversial? Not so far as I can tell. But Mieville, in particular, is much further from the center than, say, I am. (I'm right on the cusp between right edge of the center, and left edge of the right. He's a red.)

John Lambshead said...

Tom

You say 'But Mieville, in particular, is much further from the center than, say, I am.'

From the center, maybe, but not from the centre.

American politics is way to the right of other first world countries' politics. Democrats would be considered a centre-right wing party anywhere but America.

You are way more away from the centre of British politics than China - and most of the rest of the European first world would class the UK as right of centre.

John

PS Tranzidom?

Tom Kratman said...

John:

Yes, as the Great Helmsman observed, "There is always a left and always a right," and, for all I know, Mieville may be a hard line fascist in Euro terms. (I don't think so, but what do I know?) Nonetheless, there is, at least conceptually and philosophically, an objective left and right, hinging on the individual's view of man as mutable by training and education (left), mutable by breeding (right), or not terribly or reliably mutable by much of anything, in the aggregate (me). However one approaches that question is going to push one in one direction or the other or leave one sitting somewhere in the middle, saying, "What are all these nuts talking about?"

Don't believe me? Well, start off with various right wing, and typically racist, tracts. Mein Kampf might be a fair place to start. Then consider the initial draft of the Port Huron Statement (hard left: "Man is infinitely perfectable") or consider Lenin's New Soviet Man. (One of the interesting little sleights of hand I've observed in the left, of late, where late is defined by the last 20 or 25 years - is that man is not so much perfectable but already innately good except that out rotten-must-be-razed-to-the-foundations society perverts his essentially good, altruistic nature. The two concepts are about as far apart as Vedic reincarnation and Catholic Purgatory...which is to say, not too very). Or for that matter just contemplate the degree to which the left is obsessed with training and education as a force for good. Criminal rehabilitiation? Counseling? Psychotherapy in whatever form or by whatever title? Skinnerism? Everyone needs college? "Get them while they're young, Evita, get them while they're young."

On that fairly objective scale Mieville is pretty hard left and I am fairly center right. That others may choose to define the scale as what is more common or popular or PC or what have you is not, I think, dispositive.

Tranzidom? Conceptual realm of the Tranzis, or Transnational Progressives or (my phrase) Cosmopolitan Progressives. The irreponsible, self-selected elite. Corrupt. Hypocritical. Incompetent (except in corruption). Tranzidom, by way of example, gives half the Nobel Peace Prize to Kofi Annan... shortly after Rwanda. In is a consensus, not a conspiracy. Its effect should not be downplayed merely for being a (rather less than universal) consensus. Civilization is only a consensus...as is barbarism.

Dave Freer said...

Tom, the point I was making was that if -- as a reader -- you're aware of the author's attempt to mess with your mind... Well, let's put it ths way: it's a form of ambush. Those work really well when the target is aware that there will be one, no? There are a couple of techniques which tend to stand out to writers, which I had assumed you'd be have noticed (smile) On the other hand you probably weren't expecting it from me. RBV is a good example so that allows me to explain slightly easier. First off: if you can make the reader laugh (or see the ridiculous in) in something they took as a serious unchallengable issue - you have had a profound effect on how they view that issue (hence the use in propaganda of belittling mockery). Tom Sharpe is probably the leading proponent of this form, with Pratchett as better at doing it without offence. Secondly if the writer can take something controversial and make it such a part of the background as to be just there - to be accepted as perfectly possible and acceptable and normal -- you have once again achieved something that would be resisted if it was foreground point. Pratchett and Heinlein both use/d this extensively. Thirdly, to directly oppose a widely held point of view is very difficult. But you can subvert that point of veiw in such a way as to almost entirely change its thrust. Rudyard Kipling was an expert at that form. To give a cue or two in RBV I used the amoral and amusing animal viewpoints to attack several sacred cows. Secondly, the background to RBV sets the social systems of modern humanity into the context of the various human and groups, exposing what I consider the weak/unpleasant aspects of each. No, I never got anyone up on a stump and had them say 'Shavian socialism stinks.' But readers who latter encounter th modern forms of this are forewarned and predisposed to distrust it. And they didn't even know that was an aim of the writer. Finally, you may assume I am writing from one viewpoint but if you think about it you will discover that it is twisted at 90% to that. The important part is that it should be enclosed in a palatable, easy to read, amusing, entertaining story to the average reader.

Tom Kratman said...

An ambush can indeed send the reader scurrying, Dave. If it's an ambush. Or an assassination. But an open, up front, attack on X sacred cow doesn't seem to have the same effect on anyone persuadable...not that many people are. (By the way, I do do ambushes, but they're usually not political so much as moral...illustrating perceptions of right and wrong as a function of whose ox is being gored and when, that sort of thing.)

As mentioned, it's entirely possible that I am unusually insensitive to moral, social, or political messages in RBV et seq. Or just hard to offend, politically. Dunno. I do know that I take Eric's cheering sections for unions (which organizations I think are based on fraud) with a wry grin as I do just about anything in praise of the progressive income tax or corporate income tax, or aid to the Third World, or sundry NGOs...and for much the same reason: They're fraudulent.

In any case, yes, I'm familiar with the techniques. Some I even use, from time to time, here and there. When I do that, though, I realize that that really is an ambush, with all the risks attendant wrt losing the reader. ;)

Ori Pomerantz said...

I think John put his finger on the reason Tom and me fail to see the non-PC nature of Dave's work (and at least I fail to see it in Terry Pratchett's). We in the US have a different set of prejudices, and define political correctness differently. Shavian socialism doesn't look PC to us, it just looks like a particularly arrogant excuse to tell people what to do.

I wonder if the same cultural divide also applies to how you do political persuasion. If anybody should know what works in US political persuasion it's Eric Flint with his previous career as a union organizer. He isn't particularly subtle about his politics either.

Note: I am making the assumption here that South Africa is culturally more similar to Europe, or at least England, than to the US. Dave, please tell me if I'm wrong.

Dave Freer said...

guys this has wandered a bit far from writing and into politics. I'm perfectly willing to to talk about your points if you e-mail me.
But you're getting off the realm of writing, which is what this blog is for.