Monday, June 23, 2003

EMBATTLEMENT = ENTITLEMENT?

In recent message board posts, Locus reviews editor and anthologist Jonathan Strahan has expressed bewilderment (and surprise) at expressions of what he calls "embattlement" among those writers and critics who tend toward the more "literary fantasy" end of the spectrum. Why, he asks, should such writers expect to sell as many copies as Robert Jordan, for example? Why should they seem "embattled" because of those high-end sales by writers who are considered "commercial." (I'm putting so many terms in quotes because the truth is "literary" and "commercial" are artificial terms, useful to give a general idea of what we are talking about, but ever-shifting, subjective.)

I agree with Jonathan that it's a bad position to take--to feel embattled over something like that. However, it's one thing to feel embattled--it's another to not want to set limitations others try to set on you. For my part, I can only say that I do not feel "embattled" or bitter or any other word that indicates I think I am entitled to large sales. At times, I have spoken out against reviewers writing in their reviews "VanderMeer's book may not be for everyone" or "VanderMeer may not sell as well as Terry Brooks, but..." The reason has nothing to do with feeling embattled or entitled. Instead, I feel that such comments unduly prejudice the reader to expect something that's either not as good or more exclusive than other writing, precisely because we live in a culture impressed by the enormity of sales and by money in all of its many permutations. But more importantly, if a reviewer enjoys a book, it is dishonest to then put a limitation on the book, to in essence try to indicate that "it's good for its type." Generalizations of this nature tend to be only half-true anyway.

Also for my part, if I lobby for anything, I lobby for letting my work and the work of other writers subjected to such unfair comparisons find the maximum audience it is capable of having. I state this awkwardly, but here's my point: No one knows my maximum sales per book yet because I haven't yet had a book out from a major U.S. publisher. Having books coming out later this year from Pan MacMillan in the U.K. will certainly help me find my optimum audience. But the puzzle is only half complete until new work is bought by a large New York publisher and given proper distribution. My gut feeling, based on very stunning sales for the POD City of Saints & Madmen, is that I will compete very respectably. I'll be the first to admit I don't expect to reach Robert Jordan numbers. On the other hand, if you accept limitations others set on you, or that you set on yourself, you'll never reach even half of your more realistic goals.

Angela Carter always said she wanted her reach to exceed her grasp. I think such a philosophy can apply equally well to areas other than the creation of fiction.

JeffV

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