A couple years ago I began writing fiction semi-seriously. One thing I didn’t know about writing fiction semi-seriously is that a lot of people want to know what you write about, which is good, but they want a very easy answer, which is bad.
Whenever this question comes up, I don’t know quite how to answer. What you need is a neat and tidy response, like “I write about dogs.” But I couldn’t just say my subject is “people” because that’s vague, and “situations” sounds vague and pretentious. “Life” is out of the question. Pretense is an easy trap to fall into, and I’ve already fallen into it many times—in fact I’ve been impaled on the row of sharpened stakes lining the bottom.
The answer to what do you write could be “literary fiction.” But that causes even more problems. First, most people don’t know what literary fiction means. I don’t even really know what it means, other than it’s meant to separate “serious” literature from Harlequin romances and mystery novels. The latest Writer’s Market gave literary fiction this definition: “The general category of serious, non-formulaic, intelligent fiction.”
So why not whip that out at a party?
Because there are problems with almost each word in there. General category is okay, we can work with that. But is non-literary fiction never serious? Is it never non-formulaic, never intelligent? There’s also good literary fiction that is not serious, at least not in tone. Can comedy never be literary?
Then there’s the question that has to be directed inward, to one’s SELF: “Do I even want to write literary fiction? Do I want to be part of that big glowing neon word LITERATURE? Am I not part of LITERATURE just by writing anything at all? Is that a thing I want to be known for?” Even if the answer is yes in some part of me, the answer is also a resounding not really.
One time when asked what I write about, I made the mistake of giving the answer “relationships,” which is probably very true, but also very boring. My current answer is “I write all sorts of things,” because it’s more accurate than most and doesn’t lead to any more questions, usually. Sometimes I add “I’m trying to work on a novel,” because people will only kind of take you seriously if you’re working on a novel. Short stories exist in a void.
To be clear, I think it’s fair when someone pursuing an unusual profession is asked about it, and when that person looks like they really don’t know what it is that they do, confusion is understandable. Well then why is he writing?
But the other problem is—to be blunt—even I don’t know what I’m writing. When you’re searching for your own form of expression, it feels difficult or limiting to peg the process down. Maybe you don’t want to know. To know makes everything too simple, takes away the mystery. A story is as different and varied as music; it feels strange to mute it with classification. But maybe not being able to classify your work, to not have the ability to pitch it in a sentence, is a sign of amateurishness.
Maybe the best thing to remember is, this question, however I may feel about it, comes from a place of interest. The question is in theory better than not caring.
But if you’re not a writer type and interested in a better kind of question (though I can’t speak for the others) for me a much better alternative is “Is there anything you’re working on?” For two reasons—one, it has the nice but subtle implication that writing is work and this shows a higher respect for what a writer does, what a writer is. Two, this question could also be read as “Is there any project you want to tell me about?” and can be easily and politely avoided, or answered, whichever fits the questionee’s mood. Or, if you really want to, you can just ignore me and keep asking “What do you write about?”—there’s probably someone out there, much more qualified than me, who has an infinitely better answer than I do. Just don’t be surprised if all you get is awkward fidgeting as they try to process all that trial and tribulation into one bite-sized word.