I recently spent a good bit of time in the company of someone who is incapable of not stereotyping everyone he encounters. This person is so hung up on labels (circa 1950), that he’s still shocked that women are in the workforce—he thinks the the little fillies should be home domesticating or something like that.
After about five minutes of listening to him drone on, I had to bite my tongue not to blurt out about a million uncharitable comebacks, but this person is old, decidedly set in his ways, and thoroughly unable to see things any other way, anyhow. It would have done no good, as my beliefs certain weren’t going to change his. I have no patience for stereotyping. [Though I also think non-comformists are sometimes silly—like they try too hard to not be stereotypical (how’s that for stereotyping?!). I once had a friend who worked so hard to be different it exhausted me sometimes.]
The publishing industry tends to veer toward stereotyping, to some degree. I know it’s done to be “safe” and to hedge financial bets, hoping to ensure that they can ultimately sell whatever books they decide to print. Their theory is that once people decide they love to eat Cocoa Puffs for breakfast, they want only Cocoa Puffs, and since Cocoa Puffs are a sure bet, let’s not even bother with other breakfast fare. So if you come to them offering up a strawberry milkshake for breakfast, they are already certain that no one will choose that over the safe, crunchy, chocolately cereal alternative. We’ve seen it with Deb Gail’s 3-part story on how hard it was for her to be published. What did they all tell her? “You’re a terrific writer, but no one wants to read about cancer!” Well, just wait until Gail’s book comes out, and the public will show those naysayers that a book about cancer can sell just as well as—maybe even better than—a book about anything else.
My novel, SLEEPING WITH WARD CLEAVER, also did not fit neatly into a package. It was a little bit edgy, it had an unconventional protagonist, and it veered a little toward reality. I guess the publishing world thinks people don’t want to read about reality and that they don’t want to be reminded of their own lives. “Readers want to escape,” they’ll argue. I guess that’s true. Although non-fiction seems to sell well and usually there’s not much escaping going on there (well, unless you’re reading about becoming the next millionaire next door and then it becomes pure fantasy!).
But I felt certain that the universality of this novel would appeal to plenty of readers. I have always figured if I can relate to something, then so can plenty of other folks, because I’m not that different from the rest of the book-buying public. I think there’s comfort to be found in universality, to know that someone is writing about something you, too, have experienced, in some small way. So in my own naive-about-the-industry way I persevered in trying to find a home for Sleeping with Ward Cleaver, despite rejection upon rejection (“great voice, but too realistic”).
It was with a great bit of fortune that I stumbled into and ultimately won the American Title contest, thus landing a publishing contract for the novel. And now that I’m in the position to sell this book, and facing yet more industry stereotypes (such as how amazingly hard it is to elicit media attention unless you’ve been tapped with the magic publicity wand by a big-name publishing house), I feel all the more empowered to keep trying to buck those trends, determined to prove that there is a market for a book that doesn’t necessarily fit “neatly on the shelf.”
I love a challenge and am a big fan of those who defy the odds—if there’s an underdog to root for, I’ll be there cheering him/her on. And so stereotypes be damned, I’ll enjoy working hard to prove that something a little different can succeed in an industry that loves to have square pegs fitting in square holes most all of the time.