Perspectivefail

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
-David Foster Wallace

Last night I was participating in a hashtag chat on Twitter with a YA editor when I was struck, not for the first time, by how hard it can be to recognize that our own experience is not universal. First the topic of YA cover designs came up, and several tweeters expressed their preference for illustrated covers, as opposed to the photographic covers that are ubiquitous in YA these days. One of the editors in the chat mentioned that illustrated covers come across as very dated, which elicited some dismayed protests–until a Language Arts teacher chimed in with the observation that she found it difficult to get her students at all interested in books with illustrated covers.

You know, I kinda like illustrated covers myself, but her comment really drove home a point to me: we’re not the target audience. (By “we” I mean people in our thirties or thereabouts writing books for teens.) Sure, lots of grown-ups read YA. And, frankly, there is so much amazing writing in YA that there’s no reason not to, no matter what your age, and even if you’re not an aspiring author. Read it all you want, but remember that it’s not, at the end of the day, your literature. We may look around and see a lot of people our age reading YA and think that we’re a significant market, but we’re a drop in the bucket compared to the actual target audience. Publishers would be fools to put our preferences over those of teens.

More or less the same realization struck again later on in the chat, which is when I figured out what my next blog topic would be. ๐Ÿ˜‰ The question of promotion came up, and the sending of ARCs to book bloggers was discussed. The same editor from before noted that her data suggested that book bloggers did not drive sales as powerfully as was often assumed. This led to at least a half hour digression, with people talking about how their blog had generated so many sales, or how they personally bought so many books based on blog recommendations.

“Anecdote” is not the singular form of “data.”

The folks who were trying to convince the editor of how powerful book blogs were couldn’t seem to understand that just because they buy based off blogger recommendations does not meanย  this is how most teens select books to read. (It also made me think about how books make it into my wish list; it’s not through review blogs for me either.) I’m not sure what starts the buzz train rolling, but I suspect publishers are likely to have better data than bloggers are.

The same thing comes up in education. I see a lot of pedagogical theories that seem rooted in the notion that all kids are basically like we (teachers) (probably) were when we were kids. All kids are naturally curious. All kids want to learn. All kids benefit from taking notes using this particular format (and so we’re adopting it for the whole school). All kids benefit from “prewriting” papers to be written in this manner (and so we’re adopting it for the whole county). If all you know is how you were as a kid combined with your experiences with your own children, then it may be very difficult for you to accept, but your observations are not universal.

I wonder if the internet makes us more myopic in this way than we may have been a generation ago. (Not when it comes to pedagogy, of course. We’ve always been myopic there. ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) One of the wonderful things about the internet is how it shows us that we are not alone–no matter how odd we are. For a lifelong nerd like me, finding out that there were people like me was a revelation. And I have this perception, in my day job, that quirky intelligent kids of today are empowered more than they’ve ever been before. But maybe it makes it too easy to forget that what we’re into isn’t what everyone’s into.

Are you a Browncoat? Me too. ๐Ÿ™‚ When Browncoats rose up in outrage over the cancellation of Firefly, were you pretty sure they’d get it back on the air? When Serenity got the go-ahead, did you feel like vindication was at hand? Were you dismayed when it barely earned back its budget in its initial US run? You know we all supported “our” movie.

The problem is, nobody else cared. Astonishing as it was to believe, the rest of America did not share our fascination.

I think this is an important thing to remember for writers. I make no bones about the fact that I try to write stories I’d want to read.ย  I think this is pretty typical, but then maybe it makes us more susceptible than most to thinking that of course everyone wants what we want out of a story.

I don’t have any answers on that score. (Jeez, I hope you’re not coming around here looking for answers!) Maybe there isn’t really a way around that, when you’re writing. Or maybe if you’re enough in-tune with your target audience, you can internalize what they want. Or maybe it’s enough to write for you but not go around pontificating as though your tastes are everybody’s tastes.

Or you’re going to the special hell.

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6 Responses to Perspectivefail

  1. Vivi Barnes says:

    LOL – I was participating in that hashtag conversation, too. I have thought the same thing, but you know, every person who makes decisions for teens is an adult. A smart, market-wise adult, but an adult just the same. We just do our best to give the teens what they want, and at the end of the day, the numbers say if we’re right or way off base. I feel we end up writing for adults, sometimes.
    BTW, I decided I DON’T want that free pony. I had a Shetland pony as a kid, and she was meaner than scat (my dad’s words)! I was bucked off, kicked, rubbed off more times than I can count. And you know how I am about math.

  2. I’ve given up writing for a specific audience. After two novels of “wtf genre is this, anyway?” I tried for a year to write something “marketable.” Nothing stuck, I didn’t like any of the projects. I also interned for a while with the purpose of learning how to construct a marketable text. I came away with my preconceptions confirmed (though did learn other things, such as the texts which break the rules–in the right way–were the most brilliant of all).

    The current project is another mongrel, albeit a YA one. I’m not quite sure what I’ll do if I don’t sell it, but I’ve given up trying to constrain myself and am content to shape something in a more genre-friendly way instead.

    There are definitely authors who write to specific audiences–those who stay in certain genres, write series etc–but I don’t think we’re all cut out for that. I hope publishing finds a way to make it profitable to be so.

  3. Joe Iriarte says:

    Vivi–that reminds me of this commercial: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3cU3Km8TLH8 *laugh*

    I agree with you that most publishing decisions for teens are made by adults. My point is just that it’s worth being open to the possibility that what we think is awesome isn’t necessarily what teens think is awesome. What brought it home to me was seeing people vehemently arguing against someone who probably had better data than they did, just because her data contradicted their experience.

    Lucy, you give off every vibe of being ready to take off. I totally expect you to be the Next Big Thing. But my point here isn’t about writing to trends or writing to markets. It was just about not being all, Noo! This sucks! Me and my friends all like that other thing better! if you and your friends are all, like, 30.

  4. Cindy Dwyer says:

    Loved your line: โ€œAnecdoteโ€ is not the singular form of โ€œdata.โ€ So, true.

    (In this time of economic need, I offer to donate my pony to your favorite charity.)

  5. Marlana says:

    Great post, Joe. It is funny how we can feel so passionate about something we assume everyone would be in agreement. I’ve tried to take a step back with my children and let them choose the books they are interested in instead of recommending novels that spark my interest. They’re teaching me a lot! — Oh and you can bring the pony to our next meeting. I’ll let Z ride it home. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  6. Joe Iriarte says:

    Oh sorry, all ponies are shipped UPS.

    Thursday’s not looking good for me. I have a late-afternoon doctor’s appointment to see if I can get some relief from my out of control allergy problems. ๐Ÿ™

    And January 10th is definitely out of the question, because that’s my anniversary! ๐Ÿ™‚

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