Years ago, the indie bookstore where I worked hosted a reading/signing with an author whose career was on the upswing. This person had published a couple of innovative novels that had sold quite well, and he had just released another that followed a similar conceit.
A friend and I managed to coordinate our break times so we could attend the event. We found the speech charming and delightful. I bought the book (of course), and my friend stood in the signing line with me because he wanted to meet the author. Whom we found to be even more gracious and personable one-on-one than he’d been with the crowd. We fan-crushed for months.
But we didn’t love the new book.
By this point in his career, the author had achieved New York Times bestselling status. What started as a cult following had turned into mainstream fandom. He was earning enough so not only could he write full-time, but he also planned to rent a home in another country for six months to research his next novel.
To me, this was living the dream. I wanted to write, travel to exotic locales, meet fascinating people, name-drop my agent in New York, and behave graciously toward my adoring public.
I craved the life this man had.
But there was a down side, which he spoke about at some length, albeit with humor: He’d written a couple books that had captured the public’s attention and wallets, and his publisher wanted more of the same, which he had delivered in the novel he was currently promoting. Now he was itching to write other types of stories, explore new genres, expand his oeuvre. But the publisher insisted that he keep repeating the formula that had already produced bestsellers.
He didn’t want to be “the guy who writes about X.” But the publisher had decided his brand was “the guy who writes about X.”
To resolve this dilemma, he was trying to negotiate with the publisher over the remaining books on his contract: I deliver the novel you want, repeating the formula; then you let me write the one I want, trying something new; and if it sales are decent, maybe we agree to re-brand me.
This explained the subsequent disappointment my friend and I felt in the new book: The author hadn’t enjoyed writing it; it represented a further step in a direction he didn’t want to take his career; that lack of enthusiasm translated into a lukewarm plot and one-dimensional characters.
I kept an eye on his work over the years to see whether his suggested compromise with the publisher would materialize. But all the books he’s released have fit his “brand.” It appears that because of his early success, he’s locked into a genre he professed to be tired of almost two decades ago.
Recently I read one of his later novels. I found it rambling and tedious – so much so that halfway through, I turned to Amazon reviews for guidance on whether to even finish. (If you weed out the cranks, one-star Amazon reviews can be very insightful.) One said, “It’s clear that this was just written to fulfill a contract.” And I remembered that long-ago event, remembered the author describing his disenchantment and the way his publisher was forcing him to stay on that particular hamster wheel, and suspected the reviewer was more accurate than they knew.
It’s possible, of course, that the author is writing other books, books he enjoys more, under a pseudonym. That seems to be what bestselling writers do when they want to go “off-brand.” But the books he’s writing under his own name, the books that form his public identity and literary legacy, are not the books he (said that he) wanted to write. The same is famously true for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes.
I remind myself of this on the days when I’m furious with myself for not writing more at a younger age, not finishing the novel I started in college (about a girl stalked by a guy who thinks he’s a vampire), or the one I worked on in grad school (about a messed-up Goth who pines after a mysterious guy at a club), or the one after that (about the murder of a grad student moonlighting as a stripper), or the one after that (about a female black metal singer who burns churches, hangs out with vampires, and summons the demon Azazel during a concert).
And I think of it on the days I’m bitter because when I finally did finish a novel (a hallucinogenic ghost story that, I now realize, relies on all sorts of appallingly racist tropes, even though when I wrote it I was trying to use my worst nightmares to highlight the ongoing ugliness of racism), I queried more than 30 agents and got nowhere.
My writing career hasn’t taken off. Yet. Maybe that’s a blessing. Maybe if it had, I’d be locked into retelling stories I’ve now outgrown.
And quite likely I wouldn’t have experienced the circumstances that forced me to finally confront the true story beneath all the fictions I kept creating and retelling. I needed to tell that story to begin freeing myself from it. To seek out other stories. To outgrow the old tales in order to become a better version of myself.
And, not coincidentally, a better writer.