So as I mentioned at the end of my recent post about Tokaido, I’ve just been nominated for a RITA. Which is nice. I’m still not 100% certain that I’ve processed it completely, or that I know how I feel or how I’m supposed to feel. And, obviously, it’s mildly embarrassing since this time last year I wrote a long and detailed post about the RITA nominations process, in which I pointed out that most award nomination processes are, in fact, pretty random.
The way I put it back then, a RITA nom basically means that five people between them gave my book higher scores than five completely different people gave completely different books. And, of course, I’m really super pleased to be nominated but a year ago I defended RWA and the RITAs by pointing out For Such A Time was only really being validated by a small, self-selecting group of judges, not by the whole institution or the entire romance community. And it would be disingenuous not to admit that this applies just as much to my book as it did to FSaT.
Don’t get me wrong, I do find it quite validating to have been nominated for what is, after all, a highly prestigious award. I think most people in most creative industries experience some level of insecurity about their work, be it the worry that it’s just not very good or that people won’t get it or that it just won’t sell enough copies for any publisher to touch you with a barge pole ever again, and so, although all I can really say about For Real is that five judges thought it was better than some different judges thought some different books were, I’m actually pretty okay with that achievement, even on its own terms. Because, to be honest, if you’d asked me when I was writing For Real whether five randomly selected people would respond positively to a kinky romance between two male characters with nearly a twenty year age gap that deliberately reverses a lot of things people like about fictional kinky relationships, I’d have probably said no. I mean, frankly at that point I was pretty uncertain whether anyone would even publish it.
I very much don’t want to be one of those writers who constantly complains about everybody else in the industry messing with their creative vision. And I certainly don’t want to be one of those dickheads who blames the audience for their personal, artistic choices. That said, there is, as an author, quite a lot of pressure to respond to trends and perceived market preferences. I had quite a difficult time last year for quite a number of reasons, not all of them related to writing. There were times when I did get the strong sense that if I didn’t write about the sorts of things that were big at the time, in the sort of way that publishers thought audiences thought those things should be written about, that I might never sell another book again. And, obviously, a large part of this was in my head but, from a neurological perspective, so is everything else. My memories of childhood are only in my head. It doesn’t mean they never happened.
So I guess what I’m saying is that I’m genuinely overjoyed to get a RITA nomination for For Real because there was a point at which I wasn’t even sure anyone would like it. And knowing that at least five people did was basically more than I could have hoped for.
Maybe it’s because I’m British but I’m very leery of our cultural preference for narratives about sticking to your guns and following your dreams. Because, to be honest, for every out there, unsellable book that finds a passionate audience and gets to nominated for awards, there are dozens that just sink without a trace (and, Lord knows, I’ve written enough of those in my time). And, actually (and this is less a British thing than an innately contrarian thing) I have huge amount of respect for people who write very commercially successful fiction. After all, writing for a market as much as skill (and, indeed, can be as much a passion) as writing for yourself. Hell, you can argue it’s a much a nobler way to approach your craft.
Having said all that, I do think there’s a danger in letting received wisdom about “what the market wants” cause you stress, pressure or misery. And, for that matter, a danger in caricaturing your audience. I mean, what does it say about what we, as an industry, think of our readers if we don’t trust them to accept a bisexual protagonist or a black hero. I spent a lot of last year freaking out because I thought nobody wanted to buy the sort of things I wanted to sell. (And it may, in fact, still be true because every book is different and while there might be an audience kinky May-December that doesn’t mean there’s an audience for near future fairytale or Lovecraftian steampunk or lesbian urban fantasy.) But I think I have, at least, become mildly less neurotic about my ability to communicate anything of value to any other human being.
Because, hey, five people thought my book was good.
And that means something to me.