John Steinbeck said a writer should be read and not seen.

At four this morning I was restless and turned on the telly to find a black and white film featuring five stories by O. Henry (a.k.a. William Sydney Porter) being introduced by author John Steinbeck.  The first thing I heard him say was that he always believed a writer should be read and not seen.

I am of the same mind.

The first time I saw a portrait of Shakespeare I was mildly disappointed. How could someone of such genius be so ordinary looking?  I’ve felt the same about other writers many times since, and though I’m aware of how shallow and ridiculous this makes me seem, I’m pathetically human and I still feel it.

When I try to examine what it is that makes me so disappointed I realize it all comes down to perception.  When I examine Shakespeare’s works I perceive a golden mind behind the tale and am deflated to find only flesh and blood, and very routine flesh and blood at that. It makes me wonder if this is why some choose not to believe he actually wrote the plays and poems he is so famous for having written (as in the film Anonymous.)  Are they looking for a golden being to go with the golden mind?

I surmise that I too disappoint.

At signings I was frequently greeted with: “Did something terrible happen to you as a child?”  Inwardly I wanted to howl, clutch my breast and respond in a voice like Vincent Price‘s House of Usher character: “Yes! My God, yes and how is it that you alone have recognized this?”

I cannot imitate Vincent Price.  If I could I might have been so snotty, but instinctively I knew what prompted the question.  I was a disappointment.  They expected someone dark and scary and perhaps scarred or tattooed.  Instead they got me, a person they couldn’t reconcile with dark fiction.

My first agent begged me to become another Mary Higgins Clark.  I told her one existed already.  She then asked me to become like Anne Rice and appear somehow quirky or exotic, to have something that made me unusual. Again, I knew what prompted this: I was ordinary.  There was nothing dark or deviant about my appearance.  I couldn’t blame my first agent for scrabbling for a hook.  My reluctance was no doubt a part of our agreement to part ways.  Like Steinbeck, I couldn’t understand why anyone should want to see me.  My work should speak for itself.

Until my third novel most people believed I was a man.  Then some reviewer made a comment about me writing as well as any male horror author and the jig was up.  Believe it or not, sales immediately fell off, as if no one believed a woman could write horror as well as a man.  Well they believed it until they knew otherwise, which sucks for me, and for all the other female authors out there who are subtly, insanely discriminated against by book buyers.  The funny thing is, I do it too, because of the built-in erroneous perception that the really gritty, dark psychological stuff is not the same when written by a woman. It’s more like, well, like Mary Higgins Clark.  Which is not who I am.

Dammit.

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~ by S.K. Epperson on February 22, 2012.

4 Responses to “John Steinbeck said a writer should be read and not seen.”

  1. I wonder if the agent would have been pleased if you’d donned a meat dress Lady GaGa style? I personally think people who try so hard to be unique always seem like they’re trying too hard. Ya know? Like they don’t have enough confidence to stand on their own two feet.

    • Haha! A meat dress! Thank god she didn’t think of it. Granted, it’s not as bad now as it was then, but the same subtle, albeit unwitting discrimination still applies. I’m not sure it’s anything any of us will be able to get around, unless someone chooses complete deception, ala * Anonymous*, or asks a relative to ‘be’ them, which has already been done, of course. But dang it, (cue the music) I gotta be me. Good to hear from you again. :)

  2. SK, you may or may not believe this story but I swear it’s true. I was not familiar with your work until about a month ago when I stumbled upon two of your hardcovers in a Used Bookstore. It was precisely because the liner said you were a woman that I purchased both. There may or may not be a truth to which gender is capable of writing darker horror, but I do agree that most people would assume the answer to be male authors. Can I admit honestly that I did in fact buy your book precisely to see if a woman could conjure up the dark horror of her male counterparts? :)

    There were two specific items which attracted me to your book. The title “Borderland” immediately made me think of “The House on the Borderland” by William Hodgson Smith, one of my favorite horror tales from antiquity. The “Tale of Terror” subtitle was the icing on the cake. So far I am loving the story – thank you for writing it. I’ll be sure to let you know what I think when finished. ;)

    Every success,
    Sef L.

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