The Myth of the Everyreader

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Note from Jane: In today’s guest post, editor and writing coach Rebecca Faith Heyman (@rfaitheditorial) discusses myths surrounding appealing fiction, YA novels, and readership.


Authors are storytellers—everyone knows that. But authors are also voracious consumers of stories, since language is our medium for the discovery of meaning. The stories we tell ourselves are powerful, capable of framing how we see ourselves and the world.

Lately, I’ve noticed what I consider a dangerous story beginning to take root in the author community, concentrated in but not exclusive to young, first-time novelists. I’ve not yet heard the myth given a name, in part because it’s too new to have emerged fully in our industry’s consciousness, but I’ve come to think of the insidious tale as the Myth of the Everyreader.

To understand what the Everyreader is, and why the idea of it is so detrimental to author success, I want first to tell you about how I became aware of this myth’s growing power and pervasiveness.

Just last week I received a query from an author seeking editorial services for his first manuscript. When I asked him to identify his book’s audience, he told me: “Readers between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five, and basically anyone who has ever experienced heartache.”

What struck me wasn’t this author’s grand designs, but rather that they aren’t unique. That same week, I heard from an author whose market is “readers age fourteen to twenty-five,” and another who just wants to write “for boys.”

Perhaps it’s time to state an obvious truth: “Everyone” is not a target audience. In fact, “everyone” is not a target anything. A piece of common writing wisdom teaches that first drafts are for the author, and all subsequent drafts are for the reader; authors who believe in the existence of an ageless, genderless Everyreader are all but ignoring the vital presence on the other side of the page. Who exactly is reading your book? If you think the answer is “everyone,” you’re setting yourself up for frustration and failure.

Rise of the Myth

I’d venture a guess that most authors writing for the Everyreader have been raised on a steady diet of contemporary, upper-YA crossover successes—books intended for readers age twelve to seventeen that have seen major play from adult readers too. Titles from authors like John Green, Rainbow Rowell, J.K. Rowling, Jandy Nelson, and Suzanne Collins qualify as YA crossover, since their readerships have transcended the books’ intended audience of young readers.

Conditions are ripe for the world to tell itself a story—a myth—about these crossover successes, in an effort to both explain and replicate them. After all, every author mentioned in the previous paragraph has optioned at least one novel for film; Warner Bros. bought the option for Nelson’s I’ll Give You the Sun before the book was even released.

So now we have young authors whose heads are filled with great YA literature, fantasies about movie premieres, and the strong Millennial conviction that anything is possible. To them, it appears that everyone is reading YA—so why shouldn’t they write books designed for everyone?

What most of these authors fail to realize is that the crossover successes they’re trying to emulate were written for a distinctive audience. Who we write for has so much to do with what and how we write, which is why authors can’t afford to believe in an audience that doesn’t truly exist.

Myth vs. Reality

Though YA crossover successes seem to be read by everyone, the books themselves are aimed at a narrow sliver of the market. Many of the young authors I hear from are concerned about being pigeonholed as YA authors, due to yet another (far more ridiculous) myth: that writing YA is easier, or otherwise “less than” writing adult fiction. These authors seem to fear that writing YA will make them the child sitcom stars of the literary world, destined for spectacular failure as they grow up to write books meant for adults.

Let’s put this myth to bed once and for all, okay? Writing YA is not easy, nor is it easier than writing for adults. One doesn’t “graduate” from writing YA; it is not a remedial practice.

In a 2014 interview with NPR about her YA novel Belzhar, Meg Wolitzer—an author whose previous releases were aimed at adults—cited the “immediacy” of YA as a defining factor of the prose, in contrast to more “language-focused” adult fiction. What I like about this distinction is that it doesn’t privilege one over the other; evoking immediacy is not better or worse than teasing out nuances of language, and of course these features of good writing are not mutually exclusive.

For whatever reason, I’m finding that authors who believe in the Everyreader also believe they must show the world what serious, adult writers they are—even when the stories they want to tell are YA stories. The common approach is to introduce a main character slightly older than the typical YA protagonist’s sixteen years, but transpose all the same motifs of first love, rebelling against authority, and discovering identity into the plot. Prose in these manuscripts is still marked by the immediacy Wolitzer cites, and characters demonstrate the same emotional volatility we find from their younger counterparts. This is a problem. Sixteen-year-olds can be forgiven for acting on pure emotion, and some might even be endearing for it (Katniss Everdeen, anyone?). But eighteen-year-olds? Characters in their twenties? Like the rest of us, these figures must acquiesce to the passage of time and demonstrate at least some of the maturity commensurate with ages beyond adolescence.

I believe an author’s aversion to declaring herself for YA, or her insistence on denying the youthfulness of her characters, ironically stems from her own immaturity. If I write for adults, she tells herself, they might just think I am one. But this once again misidentifies why a book comes to address the audience it does.

Just like authors can’t write for an ambiguous Everyreader, they likewise can’t write exclusively for themselves. The real magic of a book happens when an author’s words and a reader’s mind make something new: page as telepathic intermediary. How can authors accomplish this delicious symbiosis if we’re hung up on self-consciousness? We have to bypass our fears of being judged or ridiculed and embrace the audience who will love us just as we are. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that sounds like the core plot of more than one YA novel.

Myths Aside

Identifying and writing to a specific audience will help authors write authentic, compelling prose. But there’s a far more pragmatic reason to know your audience. “When I take a project on,” says agent Emma Patterson of Brandt & Hochman, “it’s crucial that I can see who the audience will be. I have to determine which editors at houses tend to work on books for that audience, and convince those editors the audience is fully apparent. If I can’t see that audience or the voice is inauthentic in some way, there’s no way I’m going to be able to convince an editor to see things differently.”

When authors write to “everyone,” they are leaving an ambiguous gap at the core of their texts that could and should be filled with intention and authenticity. The difference between throwing something away and playing catch is audience. Your words need to land somewhere—and you need to know where that is before you write.

I asked Laura Chasen, an editor at St. Martin’s Press, about what makes a great crossover. “It’s all about connecting at the gut level. Whether or not a story is peppered with Hogwarts, punk music, or cyborgs is really superfluous. A truly successful crossover is all about depth of character and nuanced portrayal of relationships—the innards of any good novel.”

It should come as no surprise that what makes YA spectacular is the same stuff that makes any book captivate an expansive audience. Authors who dream of blockbuster success would do well to remember that.

Happily Ever After

Joseph Campbell said that “Myths are the stories of our experience of life.” For an up-and-coming generation of authors, that experience includes a Golden Era of YA literature that has transcended the supposed confines of the form. While it’s tempting to mythologize this phenomenon, we can’t lose sight of the fact that YA’s success is just the happy convergence of immensely talented authors around a singular reading audience. Authors hoping to ride the gravy train of YA books with mass appeal should keep their audiences dear to mind, and focus on what hopeful authors in all genres have focused on since forever: writing great books.

 

Posted in Guest Post and tagged , , , , , .
Rebecca Faith Heyman

Rebecca Faith Heyman

Rebecca Faith Heyman is a freelance book editor whose no-nonsense, compassionate, creative critique and astute book coaching have been helping authors tell their stories for almost a decade. She also serves as an advisor to the board of Reedsy, a curated marketplace for book industry professionals. Connect with Rebecca on Twitter at @RFaithEditorial, or via the RF Editorial web site.

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24 Comments on "The Myth of the Everyreader"

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[…] Editor and writing coach Rebecca Faith Heyman discusses myths surrounding appealing fiction, YA novels, and readership.  […]

Ricardo Fayet
This is actually one of the things that have surprised me most since starting Reedsy: only a handful of fiction authors seem to be writing for a proper, identifiable target audience. Before we allow authors to reach out to our professionals, we ask them to fill in a brief about their book, and the “target audience” is a mandatory (and vital) question in this brief. Now, I’d say that around 80% of the answers to that question are something along the lines of “everyone”. Often, it’s “everyone aged between … and …”. I remember one being “everyone… except men, perhaps”.… Read more »
Chanelle
It seems like a lesson on how to identify a target audience is in order. Within my undergrad program we were all confused about this one when we were creating our platform plan and I was hard pressed to find an actual guideline to help me determine this. I don’t think the issue is that writers are holding onto a myth about being universally appealing, but they simply don’t know how to identify their audience. Mostly people don’t want to admit they don’t know, because we tend to assume everyone else does. This seems like more of a disconnect between… Read more »
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[…] The Myth of the Everyreader (Jane Friedman) Authors are storytellers—everyone knows that. But authors are also voracious consumers of stories, since language is our medium for the discovery of meaning. The stories we tell ourselves are powerful, capable of framing how we see ourselves and the world. Lately, I’ve noticed what I consider a dangerous story beginning to take root in the author community, concentrated in but not exclusive to young, first-time novelists. I’ve not yet heard the myth given a name, in part because it’s too new to have emerged fully in our industry’s consciousness, but I’ve come… Read more »
Rebecca Faith (@RFaithEditorial)
@Ricardo Thanks for this! Such a great point about memoir. Authors in that genre can become so focused on telling their own story that they forget to consider who will receive that story — who will hold space and be present for it. Such an important consideration though, maybe even especially in memoir. As for when authors should think about audience, I think that while it’s helpful to consider an end-reader with a rough but complete draft in hand, authors who are looking at a premise and little more can also benefit from doing some hard thinking about audience. For… Read more »
MABarrett
In one of my WIPs, I’m constantly struggling with, “is this too violent for a YA audience”. I don’t have kids, but as a kid read some pretty salacious, violent books (think Stephen King and Sydney Sheldon). As a result, my view on how much a kid can handle is pretty skewed. Is there a rule of thumb on this? Guidelines? Do I just write it and deal later? Also, depending on the genre, I would expect some books to be more violent with more adult themes, say a dystopian that takes place in the middle of a chaotic revolution… Read more »
Rebecca Faith (@RFaithEditorial)
@MABarrett YA definitely has room for some real grit — even the Harry Potter books go fairly dark in later installments, and those books are directed at younger readers than, say, The Hunger Games. Then again, when we think about a movie like Hard Candy, it’s clear that a young protagonist (in that instance, 14yo) can stand at the helm of some VERY adult art. As you say, I wouldn’t get “bogged down” while you’re drafting, but I would definitely get some feedback from qualified beta readers or other readers with industry know-how early in your revision process. If the… Read more »
MABarrett
I think, based on the above, that’s it’s YA. The violence, the adult situations, the language; they’re all a part of the world and we see them through the eyes of the 16 yo protagonist, so it’s really her take on what’s happening around her. Though I am playing with the idea of different character POVs throughout, which is what’s giving me pause. If I move into the POV of an adult, does that skew it toward adult fiction? I may also be complicating the whole thing, which I’m definitely want to do. 😉 Thanks for the advice. It’s greatly… Read more »
Rebecca Faith (@RFaithEditorial)

@MABarrett

Based on what I know about the book (and full disclosure, readers, MA is a much beloved client of mine already, though we are not yet collaborating on the series she’s discussing), there’s no reason to pop into an adult POV. If anything, letting that notion fall to the wayside might be a useful constraint to place on your storytelling at this phase.

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[…] The Myth of the Everyreader by @RFaithEditorial via @JaneFriedman […]

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[…] In a guest post on Jane Friedman’s blog, Rebecca Faith Heyman does us the service of pointing out the benefits of targeting and reminding us that even the biggest “cross-over” titles of recent years (John Green, Suzanne Collins, J. K. Rowling) were written with very specific audiences in mind. Everything started with knowing the audience, and built from there. […]

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[…] All the People, All the Time […]

foralllove

I know -exactly- what you mean. I’m at that stage of my writing where I write for my own pleasure and hopefully someone else will like it as well, but the first person to satisfy is -me-.

Rebecca Faith (@RFaithEditorial)

@foralllove

Those “first draft” phases that are just about an author and his or her art are so critical. I hope you’re enjoying the process!

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[…] Editor and writing coach Rebecca Faith Heyman discusses myths surrounding appealing fiction, YA novels, and readership.  […]

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[…] Faith Heyman discusses an alarming new trend among new writers—the myth of the Everyreader. James Chartrand explains how to spot, fix, and eliminate passive voice in everything you […]

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[…] The Myth of the Everyreader […]

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[…] Jane Friedman: Reader myths. […]

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[…] Jane Friedman: Reader myths. […]

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[…] Faith Heyman presents The Myth of the Everyreader posted at Jane […]

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[…] the post, originally published on Jane Friedman’s blog, Rebecca Faith Heyman contends that too many writers have no idea who their audience is. When asked, they are apt to […]

Chanelle
The issue here is not the belief that our books are necessarily for everyone, the issue is most people don’t understand how to identify a target audience. I could write pages on the point, but I’ll simply put the question to you, how do you determine your target audience? If a writer has a fresh story with elements that seem to match both YA and non-YA works in different ways, what standards are used to determine which category the work falls into? There are a lot of published works which are contrary to advice on many subjects, so without mining… Read more »
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