Those of you who've read this far know I still work in a bookstore. And that I like working in a bookstore. I like putting people together with books that they'll enjoy. When I first started, I had certain tastes and a certain pre-conditioning which, over time, I've let go. People read for all sorts of reasons. I know this because I do.
But while I'm happy to say something is a guilty pleasure -- pause for digression, because I'm genuinely curious: Are there many men out there who use this phrase? And regardless, do you consider the phrase "guilty pleasure" to be a perjorative? My F&SF review column used to be called Guilty Pleasures, and the title was the one thing about the column that Gordon Van Gelder didn't like. Kris Rusch knew exactly what the title meant, and for her, there was no negative connotation in the title; Gordon Van Gelder felt that it implied that reading could be considered something to be done furtively, and he considered all reading, in an age of (much) TV and other more easily accessible media to be worthwhile.
Right. End of digression. While I'm happy to say that something is a guilty pleasure or something is entertaining fluff, I actually expect the entertaining fluff to be entertaining. I consider the words to be important; I consider the structure to be important; I consider the tone to be important -- in fact, I expect the book to be a well-written book of its type. Anything I say I like has value to me.
Not everything I read comes under this heading. There are books I read that I consider to be more weighty, and I oddly enough expect the same damn thing from them: that they be well written.
What defines well-written is entirely dependent on the book itself, of course. If I pick up a book that claims to be a love story, then damn it, I want a love story. I will feel cheated and thoroughly annoyed if it turns out to be a grim, realistic and downbeat novel about the intricacies of a spectacular failure of a relationship. And if something is touted as a genuine historical novel, then damn it, I want the sense of social and cultural reality that will inform the characters, their views, their motivations, and their interactions; I don't just want the trappings and the odd historical item thrown in as set dressing.
If the novel is a mystery novel, I don't want a great big signboard that has blinking neon lights which point instantly to the killer. (Rosemary Edghill's Bast novels are an exception to this rule, but I didn't read those for the mystery).
I could go on and on. People have heard me go on and on, so I'll spare you; you can imagine the rest.
Here comes the rant. An author I don't know came into the store to pick up copies of a magazine that their first professional sale was published in. This is a high point in a person's professional life, and one should be justifiably proud and pleased about this. But. The author then looked at me and asked me to point them to one of the Harlequin Luna "things". I reasonably asked, "Which one?"
Full disclosure: I've sold three novels to Luna. This will become immediately relevant.
The author in question then said, "Just point me to any one of them." I then pointed out, in that growing state of something that can be called "inflexible" that there were, in fact, a number of published titles of varying different sub-genres, some contemporary, some set in another world, and as in any line, of varying quality. The author thought about this for a moment, and then said, "Well, give me something in the middle, then, so I can get a feel for what they're looking for."
"In the middle?"
Well, the author reasoned, it's not like they're actually any good, so one could pick up what they needed to make their own submission based on reading any one of them. After all, it's Harlequin. The author had no plans to submit their best material, because, after all, Harlequin wouldn't buy their best work, so that would be waste of time.
At this point, I'm turning red. Or purple. I point out that the line started with a hardcover Lackey publication, and that the subsequent volumes (by title and author) were all done in trade paperback. The author is not going to waste their money on one of those books in trade. I tell the author that the line is not a category line, and the books are not written to formula, which seemed to come as a surprise; that the question would be similar to someone walking into the SF/F bookstore and saying, "Just give me one of these middling books so I can see what publishers of genre fiction are buying; it's not like they're buying anything good after all."
I started in on my lecture. Actually, it's not a canned lecture, since I very seldom have people come in with this type of question. Very, very seldom. It's more a spontaneous outraged diatribe, which was interrupted by the very reasonable person also standing behind the counter at the same time who (I think it might even have been Graydon) pointed out that I did, in fact, have another customer waiting behind the author. The second customer wanted to purchase the book in his hand today (and possibly unscorched, but the latter was implied). So… I cut short the sputtering, took the poor bystander's money, and watched the author walk out of the store.
I've been grinding my teeth since then.
And. Well. This is a Journal, right?
The point is not that the author dismissed the Luna line. I could live with that. People dismiss things they haven't read all the time, and I've generally learned to go with that. It's the fact the author professed a desire to write for the Luna line, submitting work that was, in their estimation, less than their best effort because the publisher wasn't interested in anything good that made -- and is making -- me do the slow burn.
Two reasons for this. First, the entirely egotistical reason. I sold to that line, and I don't submit work that is not my best in the form that I'm attempting. Period. If it's worth doing, it's worth doing well. Whether or not I succeeded is beside the point, and will be judged by the readers of the book long after it's left my hands; the point, for me, is that I made every effort to do my best work. This book made me nervous because it was tonally different than anything else I've written, and is the first book I've done in a long while with which I pestered poor alpha-readers. To imply that Luna will only buy the dregs of an author's work is to impugn my work ethic. I don't care if you don't like the damn book. But assuming that because you don't like it, I must have turned in only the inferior trunk novel or equivalent is damn insulting. This, however, was unintentional on the visiting author's part, and can be forgiven; it's not like I wear a big sign.
I've written 2 short stories in the Valdemar universe. The second one almost killed me; it took six weeks during which I did no work at all on anything else (which caused extreme novel deadline pressure), but I'm just not proud of the story. Not because it's not a good story, but because -- for me -- it failed to achieve the right tone. The first story I wrote for the first Valdemar anthology did achieve the right tone, and I struggled through about 12 attempts to make the second story work. In the end, with two extensions, I finished the story I had and sent it in; it was accepted, but it still causes me pangs and a sense of failure.
I've written a Buffy tie-in short story ("Dust"). Just one, because while it worked for me, I don't think it was met with any great approval by its reading audience, and because of this, I ceased my attempts to write a novel (I loved that show for the first three seasons).
At no point did I think I could write a piece of garbage for either of these two universes. At no point did I decide that somehow this work was not going to be my best work. The universes in question were not my universe, and that caused me some technical difficulties, because I couldn't shift the rules to match my emotional tones -- but I had agreed to do the work, and I wanted the work to succeed for the readers that already existed.
And that brings us neatly to the second part of this rant, and the second thing that really, really annoyed me, (which I find far harder to excuse): If you can take this attitude, it means that you're showing contempt for your readers. I may not always write with the reader in mind; I often write with complete emotional focus, and in that state, all that exists is the book (not food, not sleep, not real life -- just the book). But I never write with contempt for my audience. If I don't understand who that audience is, that's almost beside the point. How can you connect with an audience that you have nothing but contempt for? How do you grace your work with intelligence and heart in that circumstance?