Last week I made a case about a particular piece of criticism being flat-out incorrect, which can be a dangerous game to play. I do want to stress that even a slight change makes the criticism comes across a lot more differently. For example, another comment I got recently pointed out how their high school experiences were so different, and mused on whether the story was getting away from reality, or if “the author just went to a much different high school.” I like this more because not only is their criticism much more valid (criticizing the atmosphere of the high school I created rather than dismissing an event as something “that doesn’t happen to anyone”) but it also forces me to do the very thing I wanted to convey last week: considering my experiences in relation to others’.
I am currently in my early-to-mid twenties. If I had to guess, I’d say over half of my audience is older than I am. There are a lot of people that went to high school in the eighties, the nineties and even the oughts that had completely different experiences than mine in high school. I assume, based on reading stories and my own experiences, that the gap between “nerds and losers” and “jocks and preps” has narrowed instead of widened in those decades, at least from my perspective. On top of that, my high school experience was, shall we say, uncommon. Like Hazelwood, my high school was more arts-oriented and it was in a sleepy suburban town and as such, kind of sucked at creating big school events. Being a Canadian high school with a strong French Immersion program, the “jocks and preps” of the school bled into the same social groups as the French Immersion kids as well as other groups, which meant social groups were a bit more nebulous. A nerd, with enough reason, absolutely could find his way into another social group without stigma keeping him out, and I’m living proof of that. Just as other people had much different experiences in high school than me, I too had much different experiences than them. It sounds obvious as a fact to say out loud, but factor in that I of all people am writing about high school and a lot of context is given to my stories.
People looking for a more “stereotypical” American high school story might be disappointed in the lack of a huge role sports plays in the stories, or the absence of school events, or the embellished arts presence at the school, or even the fact a nerd can talk to a hot girl or a cheerleader. To them, this is out of reality because it’s out of their reality, even if it sits comfortably in mine. I remember that in the first few chapters of Mutual Benefits, one reader thanked me profusely for “accurately describing the high school experience when no other erotica author could.” At the time, I thought they were just blowing smoke. Now, I realize, I think it has a lot less to do with any talent as a writer I could have, and more to do with the fact this reader probably had a similar upbringing as I did.
I brought up David Lynch recently in a blog and his work is, in a word, niche. His shows and movies are not for everyone. A select few people go gaga over his work, but a large portion of the population probably sees his stuff as too fanciful and artsy. Everyone has their niche appeal, and everyone has a certain broadness to their appeal. I wonder if my appeal is more narrow than I once thought. I wonder if it’s narrowing with time, and I wonder if I should look into either embracing it, or broadening the appeal factor. I’m unsure either way.
I will continue to dislike concrete statements like “no one does this” or “no one experiences this” because that’s the worst possible take. But when people question why sports and events don’t take up a bigger role at Hazelwood, or act in disbelief when a nerd hangs out with popular kids, I should keep in mind that this person most likely went to a starkly different high school, possibly in a different time. It’s true, I’m writing about the 2010s and should reflect that, and I’ve maintained the whole sporty high school universal experience is a myth that was barely accurate in the eighties and nineties for a lot of kids and is less accurate today. At the same time, to some, my art straight-up denies reality; specifically their reality. So unless their point about how Milo is trans and that doesn’t “””add””” anything to the story (similar to how other characters being cisgender also don’t add anything to the story but I’m sure they forgot to add that part), when people point out how different my stories are from “reality,” I should remember that this is them passing me the torch of their limits of experience, and I could just as easily not know theirs and accidentally trespass down the wrong path. I need to be respectful with this relationship. I certainly didn’t intend to write about this bizarro world where popular people don’t kick nerds down the stairs and sports games don’t rule over everything, but if I’m showing people a portal into another reality, all the more reason to do my best to write them as well and interestingly as possible. Here’s hoping I succeed. I’ll talk to you all next week.