Monday, February 28, 2011

On learning to love my niche audiences

The last thing any creative writer wants is to be put into a narrow box. We all want to believe we are writing for all people, for all time: as universal and essential as well, Shakespeare or the Book of Genesis. So imagine my frustration! A librarian in Victoria, British Colombia reviews my book. I've never met the guy, but I picture a thin, stuffy 45-year-old in a three-piece suit, heterosexual, married, smoking a pipe in an office cubicle with a view of the Puget Sound. He said:

"[Glen Retief's] memoir should appeal to LGTB readers looking for something beyond the standard gay coming-of-age story and, incidentally, to anyone interested in the social history of South Africa as apartheid was ending."

There I had it--BAM! My memoir should appeal to eccentric queers and idiosyncratic historians. The latter only incidentally. For presumably a week or two. Then, thank God for recycling--at least I wouldn't bear sole responsibility for the loss of a row of trees in rural Maine!

I was furious. I Googled Richard J. Violette, the reviewer, but didn't learn much. I Googled Victoria, BC: beautiful spot, indeed, I decided. But who would want to live there if it's the kind of place where "ordinary" people (read: Western, middle-class, straight) don't want to read books by "different" people (African, gay etc.)? I'll stick around in Amish country. And drop off a couple of promo copies of The Jack Bank in the Mennonite store with the "buggy romance" rack. Who needs Canada?

But then, this weekend, I had a different insight. Mostly out of guilt, I've been reading Jacqueline Deval's How to Publicize Your Book. She's a former book publicist for a major New York house. The one thing she talks about over and over again is, figure out your audience! Get a picture in your head of who might want to buy your book. (The myth of universality, she says, is just that, a fairy tale. Every book appeals to specific kinds of people). Then, if you're an author with even a grain of desire to actually be read, figure out a way to connect with these folks.

So that's what I'm planning to do this summer. I am planning to visit, as much as I can, some of my favorite people in the world: progressive expat South Africans, like the fun crowd I hung out with DC for the World Cup--see my earlier post on this blog. Queers of all stripes, especially activist ones. I don't know that many idiosyncratic historians, but I am, after all, a Quaker, and Quakers are endlessly interested both in progressive social history and in global cross-culturalism. So I'm going to be doing a reading at Friends General Conference in Iowa.

I feel strangely at peace having accepted this box--and grateful to my unknown Canadian "Violette" for having pointed out its contours. As I tell my students, it's in the particular that we find the universal. And in having claimed my cultural particularity as a writer--gay, South African, etc.--I somehow also feel more in touch with the human race as a whole. There's a lesson in this.


  1. This Pacific Northwest woman will read and recommend the book. Okay, I am the niche but I can also promote.

  2. Am I still allowed to read it? (Kidding, you couldn't stop me!) Shirley