Writers and Their Anti-Fans
Roman mosaic representing the Wheel of Fortune, 1st Century BC. Image via Wikimedia Commons (cc)
by Marti Leimbach
Writers are used to rejection and criticism, if only because the ones who can’t cope with it stop being writers early on. We have in common, too, a feeling of celebration whenever we hear of successful books that were initially turned down by reputable publishers. The story of J.K. Rowling’s twelve rejections for Harry Potter passes down generations of new writers like a seminal myth, providing living hope that great books win in the end. In truth, twelve rejections isn’t a big number in the publishing world.
Rejections from publishers are discouraging, but not unduly so. Reasons vary from “We’ve recently bought a book on a similar topic” to a vague “enjoyed it but it’s not right for us.” They can be genuinely apologetic, with the editor almost begging forgiveness for not having room on her list. Some are even funny. One December, I watched a fax arrive at my agent’s office from the then-editor at Ballantine, Bob Wyatt, whose rejection was handwritten and seasonal. “Ho, Ho, No!” he wrote.
If it were only this kind of rejection writers experienced, we wouldn’t lose so many important voices early on. But the rejection process begins well before publishers are involved and has a ruthless presence from the very beginning of a writer’s life. Professional rejection comes so late in the process of becoming a writer that, while it matters, it isn’t always as damaging as the earlier discouragement we may receive from friends or family. Destructive responses from those who I call “anti-fans” can hurt us fatally. Like twelve rejections of a manuscript, the existence of anti-fans is not unusual. In fact, it is normal. If you are aware of this phenomenon, perhaps you won’t be one of the many talented people who has fallen by the wayside because of them.
Family can be powerful supporters of a writer’s work – writers’ acknowledgements often include thanks to one or more family members. But relatives can also serve as difficult anti-fans, and may do so for the best of reasons: they rightly fear they will end up being written about in some thinly veiled autobiographical novel, or (worse) a memoir, or (annoyingly) in an article of this very kind.
My sister has been my most staunch anti-fan. Anything bad that could be said about my work has already been voiced by my sister who has told me, and anyone else who would listen, that my novels are “depressing”, “unreadable”, “ugly”, and about subject matter that nobody likes. “Why can’t you write about nice things?” she once asked me. “Things people want to read about?”
For years, my sister made it a habit to call me with the great news of another writer’s success. When Stephanie Meyers sold Twilight, she was all over it. Without so much as a hello, she launched her attack. “This girl got close to a million for writing a vampire book,” she said. “Why can’t you write vampire books?”
I tried to explain that I didn’t know anything about vampires and I was busy writing another book. She breathed a heavy sigh to punctuate just how patient she was being with me and said, “Yes, I know about your books. They are very… bespoke. And P.S. Nobody ‘knows’ about vampires. They are mythical creatures! And do you know what mythical creatures are?”
I was still bewildered by ‘bespoke’. What did that mean? But I reeled off a list of mythical creatures as instructed. “Griffons, phoenixes, unicorns—” I began.
“Noooo,” she yelled into the phone. My idiocy pained her. “They are invented bullshit that people make money from! Are you getting any of this? Please tell me you are writing this down!”
That is the other thing about anti-fans. They will always corner you into talking about money. Either you didn’t get paid enough for a book and they giggle to themselves over how you waste your time, or else you got paid so much that they think you conned the world with your tatty doodle of a project. Soon enough you will be revealed as the swindler that you are. Either way, you are somehow fraudulent and wrong, while they have a proper job and earn clean money.
I have some sympathy for partners as they, too, sometimes end up in our fiction. Plus, they are captive victims, sometimes stuck with reading our early drafts. However, this doesn’t excuse the boyfriend who read a manuscript I’d sold at auction and then graded it like a schoolteacher (he gave it a B). Until then, I’d wrongly assumed that he respected my work simply because we got along otherwise. The boyfriend didn’t survive the B, but the book did very well. There was another boyfriend, too, who became an anti-fan and had to go. He not only didn’t read my work but didn’t bother with fiction at all, ever, because “Why read about things that didn’t even happen?” In the end, I married someone who had already read a book of mine and liked it. Plus, he worked in publishing. With him, I didn’t have to defend my work or, indeed, my very profession. But I was one of the lucky few. Many aspiring writers have spouses who don’t read their drafts because it isn’t their “sort of thing.” They laugh at poetry, proclaim that fiction has been usurped by film, and let it slip that they don’t believe their partner will ever be published. They may be right, though hastening the defeat of an aspiring writer is hardly an accomplishment.
My most generous reading of anti-fans is that they like to imagine writers as untouchable divas, anomalies of nature, born with prodigious talent so that telling a story in a few hundred pages comes as naturally to them as song does to the nightingale. Even those who ought to know better persist with such delusions about fabled masters. Having a sibling or partner or neighbour who writes punctures that fantasy.
Some simply prefer their writers dead. Take my father-in-law, for example. Whenever he discovered I’d published another novel (we tried to hide such events from him) he patted the row of Dickens displayed on his walnut shelves and declared, “These will do me fine”, as though there was no reason for any novelist, much less me, to publish a book after the great master had completed his final syllable of Little Dorrit. But I bet Dickens had some annoying anti-fan who complained that his stories were too long or had too many characters. Or maybe, they found the subject matter simply unpleasant (“Really, Charles, can’t you find anything nice to write about?”).
Working writers hack at words, curse at screens, and sweat it out until whatever we’ve produced is good enough to admit we penned it. Our successes, meagre or great, are a triumph of persistence in the face of the overwhelming likelihood of failure. The very act of becoming a good writer requires holding, simultaneously, the utmost respect and the deepest criticism for our own work. If we keep going, if we strive for excellence, we will at the same time prepare ourselves for the onslaught of criticism that will inevitably arrive. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it is unlikely we will ever alter the views our anti-fans.
That’s because most literary opinions come out of nowhere and are allowed to remain baseless and personal. Anti-fans may not like us because we embarrass them (family), or perhaps we strike in them the thought that they might try a little harder to realize their own dreams (anyone). Trying so hard and for so long is uncomfortable. Some of us may lose the will to keep going.
There is another factor at play, an ingredient, rare and necessary, for all literary success. And that is luck. While it is true that luck won’t sustain a career over time, we should ask what would have happened if Vanguard Press, the only one out of twenty-seven submissions, hadn’t said yes to And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street? Would the world have been deprived of The Cat In The Hat? I suspect Theodore Seuss Geisel would have persisted no matter, but I am equally certain that another artist, perhaps even one as amazing as Seuss, has decided this day or this week or this year he’s had enough of being told he isn’t good enough. And we don’t have that person’s book.
I am very aware that every time a novel of mine is accepted, someone else’s novel (which may be just as good) is being turned down. Also, that writers do not operate on level playing fields. Some of us are born into literary circles that make it easier to get attention. Some are in financial positions that allow us to carve out the hours necessary to become good at our craft. All of us depend upon a moment of unfair advantage – an editor who happens to like our subject matter, a literary trend we slot into, an agent who goes out on a limb. At these times, the years of effort we’ve put in finally pay off. But it wasn’t the years that did it. They were necessary, of course, but other writers were putting in that same effort. It’s just that we spent our lives positioning ourselves for a moment of luck and, despite the odds, that moment arrived.
It seems so fragile a thing. And maybe this is what anti-fans object to, even if they aren’t consciously aware of it. It makes no sense that a writer should eventually succeed. A writer has made a bad bet, an outright stupid choice and, not only that, she’s done it every day for years despite absurd odds. We deserve to lose. And yet, on occasion, our childish hopes win out and now our anti-fans must contend with us. They may try to belittle our efforts, to point at greater successes elsewhere, or ridicule us in some way. Why do they do so? Perhaps because it is too agonizing to learn late in life that what was dared to be hoped for can eventually take shape, that anything imagined is possible. It forces questions about what they might have done with their own lives. Did I do what was inside me? Have I missed my chance?
Anti-fans rarely take chances. They stand on the sidelines and tell us we can’t. They write their nasty reviews in near anonymity online. And they watch, sometimes with beleaguered astonishment, as despite all their efforts to silence us they cannot. They’ve trained us up well, those of us who survive. Like I said, writers are used to rejection and criticism, if only because the ones who can’t cope with it stop being writers early on.
About the Author:
Marti Leimbach is a novelist, university lecturer and freelance writer.