Defying Stereotype, Mixing Genre
Aug 2, 2015
As I scanned the crowd in the Wylie Theatre lobby, looking for a place where I could eat my box lunch, an attractive blonde on a nearby bench made eye contact and gestured that I could squeeze in beside her. I’m not good at striking up conversations with strangers, but we were both attending the DFW Writers Conference, so there were natural conversation starters.
While discussing the unusual configuration of our venue, we discovered that we had each moved to high-rise condos in Dallas after our husbands died because we had children and grandchildren there. She had lived the Natchez for the 36 years of her marriage; I had lived in Corpus Christi for the 46 years of my marriage. Both of us still maintain “home,” though she is much more rooted in Dallas now than I am.
The next question was logical. “Are you writing a book?” We have memorized our agent pitches, so we are eager to practice on each other. She has completed her first novel, has it out to agents and editors and has begun her second.
When I responded to her question—“I’m writing a primer for widows”—she reacted with some surprise, as everyone does. She wanted details. I explained that Reclaiming Joy consists of a series of vignettes—verbal snapshots—that illustrate how widows can move from grief and despair to acceptance, contentment and ultimately joy.
“Is it a ‘how-to’ book?”
“No. I am determined to avoid second person. I think widows get far too much advice, and every widow’s grief is unique.” She nodded vigorously in agreement—the common reaction. I continued, “This is the book that I needed but could not find when my husband died. So I looked for role models and mentors. My vignettes are my story and the stories of other widows. Did you find any books that helped after your husband died?”
“No, not really. I read Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking, but that was pretty far out there.” Again—the common response.
700,000 new widows each year, median age 59.4, 5 million between 50 and 75, 11 million widows in the U.S. And no books that help.
What we don’t want, what doesn’t help:
- Christian devotional books that tell us we should be joyful because our husband is in a better place, that this is God’s will.
- How-to books that prescribe a program, a method to grief recovery, ignoring the facts that there is no one-size-fits-all and that even simple grief commonly lasts two to five years.
- Dark memoirs filled with the raw emotions of those first months.
Furthermore, few books address all aspects of grief, all the nooks and crannies of a woman’s life that are impacted when she loses her husband: intellectual/cognitive, psychological, physical, social, financial and spiritual. Except for Christian devotional books, it is rare to find any meaningful reference to faith at all, though faith can be a lifesaving support, while loss of faith—How could a loving God allow this to happen?—can be devastating.
Is it a coincidence that most Amazon bestsellers on grief are classics, several of which are overtly faith-driven: When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Harold S. Kusner: A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis; The Path of Loneliness, Elizabeth Elliot?
In all the DFWcon sessions where literary agents spoke, they said the same thing:
We want something that hasn’t been written before. If you’re writing on a well-worn subject, find a new approach. We’re looking for books that will change people’s lives.
But when confronted with an actual proposal for a book that takes a different approach, the overriding concern changes: Where will it go on Barnes & Noble shelves? And, learning that there are references to faith, Is it “inspirational” (spoken as a pejorative)? The fact that it is creative narrative nonfiction, that the writing might possibly be good, that the market is not only huge, but much younger than the stereotype is irrelevant. When the goal is to help others and faith is one of the book’s distinctives, nothing else matters: It acquires the label “inspirational self-help”—a bookstore ghetto—not helped by the fact that we go to the self-help section expecting to see all the screaming titles promising 4 steps or 30 days to transformation. And here’s a book written mostly in first-person—not the expected second-person If you do this, then…. The agent says, “I think your book is important, but I don’t do ‘inspirational self-help.’”
And is it a coincidence that the agent who actually read 10 pages of the book says, “I don’t usually do this kind of work, but here’s my card. Send me your manuscript”? And of all the agents and editors who participated, he was about the only one who indicated that he was willing to consider books with a spiritual theme.
I understand. Really, I do. Publishing is a business. The agent has to pitch it to editors; and if an editor likes it, he has to convince the sales department. Anything, anyone new is inherently risky. Memoir writers, to be successful, need to be famous. Self-help authors need to be experts. Marketing a book that breaks the “rules” of a genre is difficult. Overall, the feedback was better than what I was prepared for. Multiple rejections before you find the right fit is the norm. But it’s a tough business, and no one should venture down this path without realizing the investment of time, money and emotions that is required.