Don’t Write About Chihuahuas

I know I’m going to get into trouble with this blogpost. There’s going to be a whole posse of fanatical Chihauhua lovers who’ll declare war on me. I’m just using the breed as a writing metaphor, okay folks?

But I have to confess that I really don’t care much for Chihuahuas. My dad had one. The dog’s name was Chico, and he was a neurotic pest, more rat than dog. I know it’s not fair to judge the whole breed on one nasty little runt, but there was little love lost between Chico and me.

Golden retrievers, on the other hand, I like. They’re fluffy (although dumb), they’re affectionate, and they’re good-natured. They make lousy guard dogs because they’d just wag their tail at a burglar. Still, it seems all of America loves a golden. The last time I checked the polls, goldens were the country’s number one most popular breed.

Now, say your dog just had puppies. Which breed do you suppose will be easier to give away? The ratty little chihuahuas or the fluffy little goldens?

Books are like puppies. You have to give people what they want.

(Man, is this turning into a weird metaphor. And I don’t even own a dog.)

Writers may grouse about how their literary novel about Chihuahuas just doesn’t sell, and they’re disgusted that Ms. Bestselling Author sells tons of books about goldens. I understand their frustration. They labored just as long and hard over their rat-dog novel. They got wonderful reviews. Maybe they’ve won awards. But they just can’t find an audience.

The reason has nothing to do with the quality of their writing. The real reason is that they simply aren’t in touch with WHAT PEOPLE WANT.

I read a lot of different books, thanks to all the free galleys that show up in my mailbox. I read books that have won awards, books that are marvelously crafted, by writers who clearly have talent. But no matter how well-written these books are, my own personal tastes will steer me away from certain novels when I choose my own leisure time reading. I’m not crazy about noir, for instance — too dark, too stark, too depressing. Too male. I don’t know any real people who talk the way they do in noir, and this makes the books feel unreal to me. (But what do I know? I’m just a woman.) I’m also not crazy about books in which children or animals (well, except maybe for Chihuahuas) meet untimely ends. I don’t read sports, or books about the exploitation of kids. I don’t care for books with a lot of explosions and guns and invincible he-man types. I don’t know any invincible men. I’ve raised two sons (one of whom might SEEM like a he-man) so I know that when you scratch the surface of Mr. Macho, what you get is a little boy who once needed his diapers changed.

What I love are books with women characters who aren’t just bosomy walk-ons. Books with a sense of history, books in which I learn something (except sports), books which have complex emotional themes.

I’ve discovered that I have what appears to be the same reading tastes as most American women. Who buy most of the novels in this country. It’s women who determine what will end up on the bestseller lists.

You may call me utterly ordinary and disgustingly bourgeois. I admit, I couldn’t sit through “Babette’s Feast” and “Clara’s Knee,” supposedly two of the BEST FOREIGN FILMS OF ALL TIME! according to some highbrow film critic I’ve read. I guess I just don’t have that “high culture” gene. I’d much rather watch a re-run of THE MUMMY. The one with Brendan Fraser. I call myself fortunate that I just happen to have such popular tastes. When I write, I choose subjects based on my own taste and preferences, subjects that, it just so happens, resonate with a large number of readers. I don’t do market surveys; I trust my own gut.

(And I thought The Da Vinci Code was a fun read, by the way.)

I’ve always been smack dab in the mainstream when it comes to popular culture. Yes, it’s disgusting to my many literary friends, but I loved Star Wars and X-Files and — dare I admit it? — Gilligan’s Island. I know what America wants because I myself AM America! And I think that has been a good thing for my career. I write what I love to read.

I write about golden retrievers.

That doesn’t mean that books about golden retrievers can’t be just as challenging and literary and rewarding. One of my favorite books is THE POISONWOOD BIBLE by Barbara Kingsolver. It had everything I crave: family conflicts, history, and the rich canvas of Africa as a backdrop. It was an incredibly moving and beautiful book. It was a bestseller because it was loved by women, and I was one of them. It was a golden retriever book — and it was Art with a capital A.

I know there are many frustrated novelists out there who can’t understand why they’re not selling well. It may have nothing at all to do with their talent; instead, it may be simply that the rest of America doesn’t share their particular taste. Which is a good thing — how terrible it would be if we all liked the same thing.

I mean, SOMEBODY has to love a Chihuahua.

But sometimes you have to stop blaming your publisher and the cover design and the distribution. Sometimes you have to ask yourself: “Did I choose a subject matter or a theme that readers just don’t want to read about?”

It may not change what you write about. But this may explain why your latest novel didn’t hit the bestseller lists. It’s not the writing that failed; it’s that America didn’t share your passion for the subject matter.

It’s what happened with my book GRAVITY. I felt compelled to write that book. I’m immensely proud of that book. But few other people in America, it seems, give a hoot about the space program, and GRAVITY sold poorly.

It just about torpedoed my career.

Still, to this day, I do not regret having written GRAVITY. Writers should write what their heart tells them to. But they should understand that sometimes, you just can’t get past the fact that dog is a Chihuahua.

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