Garden Party

A number of years ago, a singer named Rick Nelson had a hit song entitled “Garden Party.” A portion of the lyrics follows:

When I got to the garden party, they all knew my name.

No one recognized me, I didn’t look the same…

Played them all the old songs, thought that’s why they came.

No one heard the music, we didn’t look the same…

If you gotta play at garden parties, I wish you a lotta luck

But if memories were all I sang, I’d rather drive a truck…

…it’s all right now, learned my lesson well

You see, ya can’t please everyone, you got to please yourself.

Nelson wrote the song after appearing in a “rock revival” concert at Madison Square Garden, where he was booed when he played and sang songs that weren’t his “golden oldies,” because, apparently, that was all they wanted to hear. Some days, I feel like I really understand what Nelson was driving at.

Now…while singers — or writers — clearly can’t please everyone, it is fairly clear from the bestseller trends and sales figures that the closer a writer, and a singer, I suppose, sticks to a single type of fiction, or song, the higher the sales numbers. Robert Jordan’s other books don’t sell a fraction of what those in the Wheel of Time series do, and I doubt that anything J.K. Rowling writes besides Harry Potter will approach the Potter books in popularity, either. The same is true of popular authors in other fields. Writers who produce series, or “type” books, outsell those who don’t. In my own work, the individual books in a fantasy series outsell the stand-alones by better than three to one. Doubtless, there are some exceptions to the success of literary “type-casting,” but given the overall trends and numbers, there aren’t many. That’s why it’s extremely hard for an author to produce and get published a body of work that’s diverse, let alone do so and be commercially successful.

At the same time, Nelson’s line about not pleasing everyone also rings true. Going through reader comments and critical reviews on my books last week, I came across such comments as “writes fantasy for Republicans”… “libertarian bias”… “left wing tripe”… “ecological leftist”… “solid Republican, as to be expected from a former Reagan appointee”… “always tells the same story, young man going out into the world”… “wish he’d stay away from the arthouse fiction”… Obviously, each one of those comments and many others I haven’t quoted reflect more about the reader than my work, because, after all, I couldn’t always tell the same story, for example, and have so many readers complain in so many different ways.

Although Nelson toured widely for another 12 years after “Garden Party” was released before he was killed in a plane crash, “Garden Party” was his last hit record. I wonder why.