The Misery Trap
by Emily Brunson
It happens like clockwork. A new writer bursts onto the fanfic scene with a story. And it's a great story; it's flat-out terrific. Response is huge: lots of LOCs, maybe a few awards, recognition.
New writer posts/publishes her second story, and that too is very warmly received--maybe even more so than the first. Huzzah!
But by the time she writes the third and fourth and fifth and tenth stories in that fandom, she's started to notice something. All her LOCs are taking on a sameness that is a little dismaying. And, well, she'd really like to maybe write something a little *different* from what she's done before, but it seems as if when she tries that, response is really lukewarm.
There's another show, and another new fandom, and the cycle starts over again. She might delay that transition by posting either pseudonymously, or simply ignoring the fact that her readers simply don't seem to be quiteas receptive to the newer stuff as before, but eventually she'll probably wander.
One of my least favorite Stephen King novels deals with a shade of this subject. (Those who know me know I adore SK, so it says something, probably, that this was a novel I didn't like.) Although the sensationalism of the whole "I'm your biggest fan" idea and its attendant gross excesses were not to my taste, the subject matter was and is germaneto the fanfic writer. The protagonist of "Misery" is a writer with a string of hugely successful romance novels to his credit. Now he doesn't want to be writing romances; he wants to be doing literary fiction. Butromances have paid the bills. In a theme King has played with more than once (see "The Dark Half" for another treatment of the same basic idea), his protagonist kills off his main character, Misery Chastain, to free himself from having to write more of her story, and thereby also enablehimself to pursue what he really wants to write.
Of course, his biggest fan isn't about to let that happen, and all sorts of mayhem and decidedly yucky stuff ensue. However, the idea is there: This writer's fans don't really *want* something new. They want what they'vecome to expect from him; they want what they've grown to love getting from him; and they don't really understand or perhaps even acknowledge that he'd like to do something else.
This novel and "The Dark Half" both have a decidedly autobiographical reek about them, but this isn't a situation King faces alone. Fandom, while lacking the big paychecks and financial incentives that King has, still makes certain demands of its favorite writers. Fandom is quick to labelwriters, with such terms as "humor" and "angst." And it is reluctant to let go of those labels, which more than one writer may find stifling.
It's all about preconceptions and expectations. I'm an "angst writer." Francesca is a "humor writer." Other writers have other labels, and many have the same ones. But it's rare to find a writer who has more than onelabel. Why? Several reasons. First: most writers do tend to write a certain type of fiction. A label may be constricting in some senses, but in others it's simply truth in advertising. I am an angst writer by and large (although I prefer the term "drama" over "angst," since it's more all-inclusive). Francesca does write a lot of humor.
But Francesca writes a lot of stuff that isn't really very funny at all. And I've been known to write a few lighter pieces, myself. By and large my own response to the lighter stuff hasn't been that good. Not bad -- butwith a faint air of dismissiveness, as if this wasn't really representative of my ouvre.
Which leads me to the second reason why we tend to slap one label on a writer, and attach it with super-glue: As writers, we've created a sense of expectation on the part of the reader. Post a couple of serious, dramaticstories, and your readers will expect your third, fourth and fifth stories to most likely be equally serious and dramatic. Write humor, and your readers are unlikely to expect heavy drama from your fourth story.
Are they right to expect such things? Of course they are! After all, you as the writer have created the precedent.
The saying goes, "A leopard can't change his spots." As far as writers are concerned, that isn't literally true. We can and do write many different types of works -- some writers do humor and drama; some may write melodramaand then leaven their next piece with slapstick humor; still others may do poetry to ease the relentlessly literal quality of prose. However, getting past that labeling process to a point at which all of their different typesof writing and expression are equally accepted is not an easy task.
What does it all boil down to? Fandom readers are unlikely to hunt writers down, tie them to their beds, and chop off their feet so that they are helpless and unable to do anything but write what the fan wants them to write. But in a sense, that's what labels and expectations do. As King'sprotagonist learns in the novel, coloring outside the lines is a risky business indeed. Readers don't really *want* their favorite authors to change and explore. After all, these writers became favorites because they did something really well -- something the readers enjoyed. Are thosereaders wrong to want more of that something? More drama, more humor? I don't think they are. Is the writer wrong for wanting to go outside the box and try something new? Of course not.
Choose your own adventure. But be aware that humans love labels, because we feel that by labels we *know* something or someone. That isn't necessarily true, but it isn't necessarily false, either. And if you choose to color outside the lines you have drawn for yourself, know thatyou may have trouble convincing others to look at the new picture you've made. No one's wrong here. It's only an odd conundrum, which might as well be called the "Misery trap."