Smithsonian Magazine did an issue last November on American Ingenuity. (I’m just now getting that far along in my magazines. They tend to pile up while I’m reading books.) The issue examined education, science, and the arts. Singer and songwriter Roseanne Cash was the subject of one of the articles, an intriguing story on how she and her husband went about the creation of a concept album The River and the Thread by writing songs that tells stories.* A couple of her observations resonated with me as a fiction writer and a reader.
One: “The more specific you are about places and characters the more universal the song becomes.”
Two: “You have to keep cracking yourself open or you become a parody of yourself.”
Cracking yourself open. It’s like the work an actor does to get into character—using memories, feelings and imagination to fully experience a role. That’s where the stories come from, the ones that mean something. This doesn’t mean necessarily that stories are autobiographical. One of Cash’s new songs is about two of her distant ancestors during the Civil War. The creative person cracks open her compassion for others and her capacity for invention and hard work, not just her own life story.
On the opposite end of the creative spectrum, there’s the formula-for-success approach. I got an advertisement last week offering a special price on software that supposedly could help an author become a bestseller by analyzing the data on current bestsellers. The advertisement claimed that by using this analysis, an author could target his or her next book to the right niche in the market, and even choose a title based on what’s selling as well as key words to use in marketing. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to sell—no one writes a book with the hope of obscurity—but there were several things that bothered me about this ad.
One: Everyone can’t be a best-seller, although the developer of the software implied his product could get that result for his customers (I think he knew better than to guarantee it). Best implies exceptional sales, above average, and we can’t all be above average, though there are sub-categories so small that a book can be in the top one hundred, a best-seller within that category, without having significant sales. I have no idea if this software I chose to forego drills down into the sub-basement for narrower and narrower categories, small enough that everyone actually can claim to be a best-seller. It doesn’t matter—because of the second thing wrong with this picture: I can’t imagine writing a book quickly enough to tailor it to the current trends. They would change by the time I was done. And then, there’s the third problem: When a particular book is a big hit, it doesn’t mean that other books like it will be successful or that readers want more of the same. I haven’t read fifty shades of anything and don’t plan to. Reading books that reproduce what’s already popular has no appeal for me. With genre fiction, there are already so many conventions and expectations, an author’s challenge are how to innovate, not how to replicate.
I was talking with a friend about a best-selling series she follows, but which I quit reading half-way through the third book. She agreed with me that the books had become predictable, mechanized, and broadly caricatured, but she used them as audiobook background entertainment during exercise and housework, perfectly suited for that purpose. “It doesn’t matter if I miss part of it.” That particular author may not mind that her followers have such thoughts—she’s selling a lot of books—but I think even a popular writer could lose part of his or her fan base by losing originality.
One reason I enjoy indie books is that they often venture outside of the formulas or dare to bend them. And I think all authors, from little-known indie to traditionally published national best-seller, need to keep cracking ourselves open so we don’t become parodies of ourselves.
*Himes, Geoffrey, American Ingenuity: Performing Arts: Roseanne Cash: The Long Way Home, Smithsonian Magazine, Nov. 2014 pp 60-65