Sunday, January 23, 2011

My Aversion is Your Boon

I once heard a literary agent say that if your book doesn't offend anyone, it probably isn't moving anyone either. Today's post explores that idea.

The dating website OkCupid has a blog, OkTrends, where they analyse their data and often pull out surprising insights into human relations and human beings.

In their post The Mathematics of Beauty, they note an interesting phenomenon. When they graphed how many (heterosexual) men contacted a (heterosexual) woman as a function of that woman's perceived attractiveness, there was a big spread in the data.

That is to say, one pleasant-seeming woman who was rated as "cute" might get twice as much mail as another pleasant-seeming woman who also rated as "cute"--and why was that, if they were equally attractive?

What the data-crunchers found is that it wasn't a woman's average rating that mattered, but rather the amount by which she polarized opinion.

A classically pretty woman would have a bell-shaped attractiveness rating, with most people considering her "cute" and smaller numbers of people rating her either prettier or less-pretty than that.

However, a pretty woman with unconventional features, or atypical makeup, or facial piercings and visible tattoos, would often have an inverted bell in her attractiveness rating, with the majority of people considering her one of the extremes--either "hot" or "ugly". Her overall rating might average out to "cute", but she really evoked much stronger reactions from people than that.

The data-crunchers found that the latter sort of woman--the polarizing figures--were the ones who overwhelmingly got more interest from would-be mates. It was far better to have a few people consider you ugly than to have the majority of people consider you (merely) cute.

So how does this relate to writing? You can probably guess. Think of all the times you've read about/heard a literary agent saying, "I have to fall in love with the book to offer representation." They don't get excited if they think your novel is merely "cute"; they have to think it's "omg-hawt".

Have you ever heard of the book Lolita? How about American Psycho? Or Fight Club? I don't even read the genres these books fall into and yet I've heard of every one of them because they were polarizing novels. They horrified some people and electrified others. In dating terms, they were the woman with the dreadlocks and the tongue stud.

This implies that when it comes to writing (and maybe life) you should put your quirkiness very firmly on display. Courage is attractive, and playing it safe might not get you anywhere at all.

There is a nice corollary to this principle, too. If you ever have the misfortune to have someone blow up at you because of your writing--to get emotional and tell you the work stinks, that it's offensive, that it will nevereverEVER be published--that may be a very good sign indeed.

Because what one person hates is often what another person adores. If you're provoking emotion, then potentially you're doing something very, very right.


What do you think? When is it prudent to be safe, and when should you wave your freak flag high? Do you think books that are good-yet-weird really do better than books that are good-like-the-other-good-stuff? Can being different help you break into publishing, or will it get in the way?

Or is it, like so many things, a matter of degree? Where's the line between "fresh" and "inaccessible"? I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Author website: J. J. DeBenedictis


fairyhedgehog said...

It's a very good point.

I'm not sure it works the same as on the dating site, where part of the attraction of quirky girls is thinking you have a chance with them! But I'm sure that you get more readers by taking risks than by not.

I like your blog because it is so distinctive - the wonderful mix of upbeat, writing, science and geekery.

Sylvia said...

This is interesting to me because I've just had feedback on a piece of flash that was clearly very polarising. What was noticeable was that it got really negative comments which were not about the writing.

My feeling is that I need to deal with the middle comments, ignoring the strong reactions from the lovers and haters and I'll have something good.

But I bet the story that got all neutral responses will be the easier one to sell...

Reesha said...

I think it depends on the genre. If you're writing High Concept, then yeah. It kind of needs to be 'cute'. But if you're writing mystery, romance, fantasy, or sci-fi, and there are similar things that have already been done, it's probably best to freak out and let your readers know about it.

Dale said...

If the OK Cupid gaming-theory theory holds true, I'm not sure how applicable it is to writing. And in dating, most people are only looking for one good match, not an audience! :)

Still, writing that causes a strong reaction is always a better read in my opinion. I guess the trick, as always, is finding the audience and getting past the gate keepers who might not want to risk.

Kate said...

I have this conversation with myself all the time. "Is this too out there? Is this going to make people think I'm a big arrogant freak?" And then I think, "Every book I've ever loved is rife with the author's audacity." If the stories seemed normal, it was only because they became so popular.

So yeah: No guts, no glory.

Whirlochre said...

Right, that does it. I'm giving all the characters in my novel foot-long penises. Sticking out their ears. Blue for girls, pink for boys.

Meanwhile — you've hit the nail on the head with this one. Sadly, now seems to be a time for playing extra safe (or being made to).

With Kate 100%.

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