Sometimes I have to take a step back and look at how my time on the internet (and most particularly in fandom) has really kind of desensitized me to a lot of things that are generally frowned on — not to say that I condone a lot of these things in real actuality and life, but in fiction, I have reached a point where it takes a genuine lot to shock me in terms of violence or gore or sex. I have friends whom I respect as people who like some really “awful” things in the grand scheme of the world, and it hardly even begins to bother me.
But then I’ll go to a different forum — like the KDP writer’s forums, or other, less fandom-populated boards — and it’s … not exactly like the proverbial splash of cold water, but it does sort of throw one for a loop. People talk about how their readers criticized them for being too detailed in a grim scene, that the reader didn’t need that sort of depth of following a character’s struggles through a difficult time. Meanwhile, if I rewindow to my plurk timeline, people are talking about a visual novel where one of many bad endings involve a messy and unhappy death for the protagonist — not just in written detail, but with full-color illustrations! And I always have this moment of cognitive dissonance where I have to consider that the “safety” of fandom has basically meant that as long as it’s fiction, I can turn a blind eye to a lot of terrible things.*
* This is not to say that I am completely immune to things. In all honesty, I am one of those people who can get entirely too invested in the stupidest things. In high school, when they would show us the shock videos against drinking and driving, complete with the photos of accident victims, I very nearly had a panic attack there in the auditorium. I am not ashamed to say that I outright begged my teacher to let me skip it when my schedule just happened to be structured so that I would have to see it twice in a day. For fiction, I still vastly side-eye underage stuff, and narratives that endorse behaviors as healthy, or as acceptable because they are the norm. If I, as a reader, read something and think, “this is not the narrator, this is the author saying these things and believing them,” beyond whatever constrictions of character voice and unreliable narrators give, then I definitely do not give things a pass.
On the other hand, though, this sometimes leaves me at a loss of what to do about the things I write. At the risk of sounding like one of those special stars for everyone! people, I really dislike forcing myself to write in a single genre box; sometimes I want to write eldritch horrors, sometimes I want to write a quiet romance, and sometimes I want to write both together. Sometimes I want to write something that I am reasonably certain my friends would enjoy, but the greater world would look at and believe that I condone these things, rather than want to explore something through the lens of fiction. Most of the time I end up writing these things, but once they’re done and as polished as they can be, that’s when I’m at a loss, because what do I do with this? If (completely nonhypothetically; this is done with its revisions and as ready for the world at large as it can be) I write a story about an unreliable narrator watching his stepfather abuse his brother and eventually take (bloody) justice into his own hands — only to imply at the end that he is on the cusp of following in the dead man’s footsteps — what do I do with a story like that? Sure, there’s an audience for that out there somewhere, but that’s not my normal audience.
Honestly, I can’t with any confidence say what I want my “normal audience” to be. All conventional wisdom I have seen about self-pubbing boils down to “build a solid base and they will come; build a solid base and then advertise yourself and be true to those roots.” And there are people who primarily write erotica (which I sort of have done to date, though I feel like I probably stray more towards hardcore in softcore romance than anything else), people who primarily write horror, and people who write thrillers and fantasy and sci-fi — in the traditional world of publishing, you don’t see a whole lot of crossover of genres.
But in fanfic, where I got started, you had the freedom to do that sort of thing all the time. You could build yourself a name in fandom because you had the umbrella of the canon, rather than the genre. And in some ways, I think I’ve been spoiled by that — fandom taught me that there’s very little that won’t find an audience out there somewhere, and that if you write it, they will come. (Just like they say about self-pubbing, though that’s a much, much bigger pond with sharks in the water.) So if the whim takes me and I decide, “I want to write a story where a character observes abusive incest and doesn’t realize how unreliable he himself is becoming,” I do that; and if I decide, “I want to write a story where a man quietly realizes he’s falling in love with someone who is utterly unsuited for him, but loves him honestly back,” I do that. And what that shows about me as a writer to people who don’t know me, I honestly don’t know. I don’t want to be someone who strangles the stories she wants to tell because they don’t fit her “image,” but does that mean I don’t create an image, period? Instead of seeming like someone with varied interests and tastes and likes to explore a lot of different things, do I just seem indecisive and careless, flinging myself blindly onto a shock bandwagon and then off again onto the coattails of this genre or that subject?
Honestly, I don’t know that answer. And to be fair, I’ve only really been considering it for the past six months, since I started self-pubbing. To date I have eight stories available, and most of them are under 20k words. That’s not really enough to really establish anything, except that at I am at least trying to do more than simply “publish story and expect things to happen.” Ultimately, I don’t really care if I can’t make a living off my writing — just as long as there are people out there who are reading and enjoying. If I could build even a small group of people who could trust me no matter what topic/genre I choose to write, that would be pretty fabulous.
Who knows if that will happen! But hey, I can always dream.