Galaxy cassiopeia

Writing for the Ten Percent

by Eric Schwitzgebel

The following is adapted from my advice to aspiring writers of philosophical fiction at the Philosophy Through Fiction workshop at Oxford Brookes last June.

I have a new science fiction story out this month in Clarkesworld. I’m delighted! Clarkesworld is one of my favorite magazines and a terrific location for thoughtful speculative fiction.

However, I doubt that you’ll like my story. I don’t say this out of modesty or because I think this story is especially unlikable. I say it partly to help defuse expectations: Please feel free not to like my story! I won’t be offended. But I say it too, in this context, because I think it’s important for writers to remind themselves regularly of one possibly somewhat disappointing fact: Most people don’t like most fiction. So most people are probably not going to like your fiction — no matter how wonderful it is.

In fiction, so much depends on taste. Even the very best, most famous fiction in the world is disliked by most people. I can’t stand Ernest Hemingway or George Eliot. I don’t dispute that they were great writers — just not my taste, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Similarly, most people don’t like most poetry, no matter how famous or awesome it is. And most people don’t like most music, when it’s not in a style that suits them.

A few stories do appear to be enjoyed by almost everyone who reads them (“Flowers for Algernon“? “The Paper Menagerie“?), but those are peak stories of great writers’ careers. To expect even a very good story by an excellent writer to achieve almost universal likability is like hearing that a philosopher has just put out a new book and then expecting it to be as beloved and influential as Naming and Necessity.

Even if someone likes your expository philosophy, they probably won’t like your fiction. The two types of writing are so different! Even someone who enjoys philosophically-inspired fiction probably won’t like your fiction in particular. Too many other parameters of taste also need to align. They’ll find your prose style too flowery or too dry, your characters too flat or too cartoonishly clever, your plot too predictable or too confusing, your philosophical elements too heavy-handed or too understated….

I draw two lessons.

First lesson: Although you probably want your friends, family, and colleagues to enjoy your work, and some secret inner part of you might expect them to enjoy it (because it’s so wonderful!), it’s best to suppress that desire and expectation. You need to learn to expect indifference without feeling disappointed. It’s like expecting your friends and family and colleagues to like your favorite band. Almost none of them will — even if some part of you screams out “of course everyone should love this song it’s so great!” Aesthetic taste doesn’t work like that. It’s perfectly fine if almost no one you know you likes your writing. They shouldn’t feel bad about that, and you shouldn’t feel bad about that.

Second lesson: Write for the people who will like it. Sometimes one hears the advice that you should “just write for yourself” and forget the potential audience. I can see how this might be good advice if the alternative is to try to please everyone, which will never succeed and might along the way destroy what is most distinctive about your voice and style. However, I don’t think that advice is quite right, for most writers. If you really are just writing for yourself — well, isn’t that what diaries are for? If you’re only writing for yourself you needn’t think about comprehensibility, since of course you understand everything. If you’re only writing for yourself, you needn’t think about suspense, since of course you know what’s going to happen. And so forth. The better advice here is write for the 10%. Maybe 10% of the people around you have tastes similar enough to your own that there’s a chance that your story will please them. They are your target audience. Your story needn’t be comprehensible to everyone, but it should be comprehensible to them. Your story needn’t work intellectually and emotionally for everyone, but you should try to make it work intellectually and emotionally for them.

When sending your story out for feedback, ignore the feedback of the 90%, and treasure the feedback of the 10%. Don’t try to implement every change that everyone recommends, or even the majority of changes. Most people will never like the story that you would write. You wouldn’t want your favorite punk band taking aesthetic advice from your country-music loving uncle. But listen intently to the 10%, to the readers who are almost there, the ones who have the potential to love your story but don’t quite love it yet. They are the ones to listen to. Make it great for them, and forget everyone else.

Eric Schwitzgebel is Professor of Philosophy at University of California at Riverside.  He received his B.A. in Philosophy from Stanford in 1990 and his PhD in Philosophy from U.C. Berkeley in 1997, under the supervision of Elisabeth A. Lloyd, Alison Gopnik, and John Searle.

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