Deb Vanasse | Know Your Reader


“You’re a person who can handle shades of gray, aren’t you?”

Judy had her hands in my mouth, probing and scraping, so I could only nod in response.

“I thought so. Me, I can’t stand gray. Black or white. That’s how I like it.”

A self-professed voracious reader, Judy knows I’m an author. She launched this teeth-cleaning session by telling me about the latest book she’s reading, a novel in a survivalist series self-published by an author who calls himself “A. American.” The novel opens with the protagonist stuck in a traffic jam of apocalyptic proportions caused by, well, an apocalypse. He has to get to his family—but as Judy assured me, he knew they’d be okay because they were prepared.

Did this sound like the kind of book I liked to read? Judy took her hands out of my mouth when she asked this, apparently expecting more than a gestured response.

Never keen on antagonizing a person who wields sharp dental instruments, I framed my answer politely. Driving to my appointment, I’d heard a radio report about the apocalyptic potential of cyber-attacks, and it scared the bejeebies out of me. So no to A. American, thanks anyhow.

Judy seemed puzzled that I couldn’t connect with her on this book. If I wasn’t interested in survivalist tomes, what did I like to read?

Again she removed her hands from my mouth. I rattled off a couple of titles I’d recently finished—Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Masha Gessen’s The Man Without a Face. The latter was about Vladimir Putin, I explained, thinking this might resonate in a black-and-white sort of way.

Nope. It only set her off on a defense of Putin’s partner in bromance, the current occupant of the White House.

My teeth clean, I had much to ponder, not the least of which was whether I should be actively seeking different dental care. But Judy also helped me think about the audience for books, and about why I write what I do.

More than once, I’ve wished I could write more to formula. Formula sells, especially for readers like Judy who are hard-wired for moral absolutism, for certainty, for the concrete. Psychological and sociological research has proven, again and again, that this hard-wiring is especially evident in those who self-identify as politically conservative. A key motivation, per the research, is fear.

Which is not to say we should pigeon-hole readers by political affiliation or anything else. Rather, we writers need to understand that readers experience books in different ways, and that their preferences are likely not terrifically malleable. We also need to understand ourselves – where we can flex with our own preferences and where we can’t.

A fellow writer, whose initial work has been gutsy, funny, in-your-face feminist rants, tells me she’s going to take up writing romance novels. Plenty of strong women there, she notes, plus there are avid readers. I’ll be following her venture. Maybe there are clever ways to push at the edges of formula, to expand one’s readership. There’s something – and someone – for everyone, as they say – books and readers alike.

Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored seventeen books. Among the most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds; and the “deeply researched and richly imagined” biography  Wealth Woman. After thirty-six years in Alaska, she now lives on the north coast of Oregon. The opinions expressed here are solely her own.


2 thoughts on “Deb Vanasse | Know Your Reader”

  1. Hi Deb, you’ll find that most of the heroines in romance today are feminists, and there’s more variety in plot and sub-genres than you might expect. RWA (Romance writers of America) welcomes all romance writers.

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