What not to write about

A very savvy authority in the book publishing biz once told me that there were two subjects I should never, ever write about if I want my books to hit the bestseller lists. “They’ll kill your sales,” she said. “If either of these two words even appears on your flap copy, readers will close the book and run away, shuddering. So don’t write about them. Don’t even hint that they have anything to do with your plots. Avoid them at all costs.”

What were the two topics she warned me against? Cancer and HIV.

To which I would add a third one: Alzheimer’s Disease.

I find a certain amount of irony that I can write about gruesome murders and serial killers, twisted sex fiends and decomposing bodies — and readers will happily dive into those stories. But no one (including me) wants to read a novel about Alzheimer’s, cancer, or HIV. And the Publishing Authority told me why: Because those topics are too close to our own lives. They’re not fantasy — they’re reality. Everyone probably knows someone close to them who’s suffered from one or all of those three conditions. So the topics depress us on a very personal level. When we choose a novel to entertain us, we want to escape real life. We want fantasy; we don’t want to be smacked in the face with the crises we must deal with in our own families.

As an observer of the publishing biz, I see the wisdom of her advice played out in book sales. I can think of a number of well-written thrillers that died prompt deaths in the marketplace because they dealt with one of those Dreaded Three topics. Whenever an aspiring author tells me he’s got a great thriller premise having to do with cancer deaths, or conspiracies to hide the “real” genesis of HIV, I tell him to choose another topic. Some writers will accuse me of being close-minded. Or they’ll point to some literary novel that dealt very successfully with those topics.

But those are literary novels, and lord knows, literary novels seem almost designed to depress us.

There are other topics that can cause readers to shy away from buying the book. Pedophilia, for instance. Or dead kids. Or any diseases of aging. My medical thriller, Life Support, was about a secret treatment touted as the “fountain of youth” for old people — a treatment that ends up having horrific side-effects. And I distinctly remember the reaction of my film agent when he tried to sell the movie rights. “There are too many old people in this story,” he said. “That makes it a hard sell in Hollywood.” (And he turned out to be right.) Hollywood wants young and nubile, and the last thing they want is a story set in the world of the aging and infirm.

I suspect there are people reading this blog post who are getting pretty angry at me right about now. They’ll accuse me of being ageist or narrow-minded or too willing to adhere to fluffy Hollywood standards. I’m just telling you what I hear from people in the biz, people who look at book sales and hard numbers. And even an exquisitely crafted thriller about cancer has a hard road ahead of it.

14 replies
  1. Ghasem Kiani
    Ghasem Kiani says:

    This was a very interesting blog post. I agree with you on this topic. I specially liked that bit about literary works: “… literary novels seem almost designed to depress us.” Very well said!

  2. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    You know, I think MOST books are designed to depress us. The last few times I’ve gone to my bookshelf looking for something FUN to read, I always come up short. Everything is murder and abuse and existential angst. I shouldn’t really be saying anything, because my own writings follow the same lines… but there you go.

    You’re absolutely right, though. There are certain things you just DON’T want to read about. Reading is an escape from our lives, so we don’t want to read things that might remind us of them!

    Are there any topics (besides the three mentioned) that you won’t touch in your writing? Any personal taboos?

  3. moe.kay
    moe.kay says:

    Thanks for a very interesting blog topic, Tess. I have often laughed about how many negative stereotypes I have associated with my current position in life. I am a post-menopausal, ten-year gynecologic cancer survivor, as well as a lawyer employed by the government. Can you imagine what that savvy authority in the book publishing business would have to say about a novel based on my life? It makes me wonder how I can be having so much fun!

    I suspect that if I ever decide to write a novel about the adventures of a wild and wacky cancer survivor, I better plan to self publish the book, no? I did think of one pretty good movie about the subject of cancer that I believe was based on a book, called “The Doctor.”

    It’s interesting that despite the millions of long-term cancer survivors, many of whom have gone on to do extraordinary things (think Lance Armstrong), cancer still has such a negative connotation. I cringe every time I hear a politician refer to something terribly negative as “a real cancer in our society.” But I guess calling something “a real heart attack in our society” wouldn’t have anywhere near the same effect.

  4. Tess
    Tess says:

    the other topics I tend to shy away from are politics (too possibly inflammatory!) and anything to do with accounting. I just can’t think of a way to make numbers interesting.

  5. Lilly
    Lilly says:

    Hm, if “Streets of Philadelphia” was a novel as well, I bet it would have been successful.

    It’s never just about one topic, but about the story.
    If the story’s good, ppl will start talking about it – and others might think “So, HIV, okay- but why not giving it a try?”

  6. therese
    therese says:

    Yes, there’s a huge difference between what a reader wants from a novel in comparison to what a literary reader prefers. There’s also a different expectation in the audience from a movie or a documentary. The labeling is specific for the reader: based on a true story, biography, etc.
    For me, “The Streets of Philadelphia” was gut wrenching to watch for two hours. I’ve never watched it in its entirety again. I would never spend the additional hours, in that type of story, to read it as a book. I’ve been learning a bit about these two different mediums and books and movies really are worlds apart regarding story.

    In this particular movie, the audience was given a “hero” to come to the aid of the real hero, so we could watch his transformation and growth. I don’t remember the lawyers name, but in the movie, his story arc was one we connected to as an audience. In a book, he wouldn’t have had enough page time, to make the same impact he could in the screen presentation.

    The deterioration of HIV would require a lot of words on the page in a book. On the screen we were given a few seconds at a time, then lots more healthy bodies to view.

    So while I agree with Lilly, it’s about the story, I disagree that books and movies are interchangeable. Also, “Streets of Philadelphia” was based on a true story, which puts it into a different classification than – novel.

  7. TomYoung
    TomYoung says:

    That seems strange to me, I’d read them anyways. I’m not sure what it says about society that we can’t seperate truth from fiction, but then again maybe that’s why our economy is so bad right now… everyone believed a lie.

    I’ve dealt with two of the three topics and don’t see how it would affect me in reading a book. I guess I can compartmentalize things better than most.

    How about a book about Bubonic plaugue, now that some infected mice have escaped their lab in NJ?

  8. soniavcf
    soniavcf says:

    I totally agre with you. We see these three topics too close, everybody knows someone who suffers from cancer,Alzheimer, etc., and we prefer reading about other kind of topics. I don’t think you are narrow-minded 😉 I find really nice of you that you think of the reaction of people before writing a book. It’s obvious that you take care a lot of your readers.

  9. Tess
    Tess says:

    ironically, a book about bubonic plague probably wouldn’t have a problem on the marketplace, because most of us know we’ll never catch it. It remains in the realm of fantasy. It’s a bit like those serial killer novels — yes, there are such killers in reality, but most of us never worry about falling victim to one.

  10. Lorra Laven
    Lorra Laven says:

    I’m sure most writers have a list of ideas for new novels. I think Tess’advice is spot on and if any of the blacklisted topics were on my list of books to write, I’d change or delete them. Why borrow trouble?

    I know that I cannot read anything where an animal or child is killed or maimed. I will stop if I sense such a scene coming — done exactly that three times in the last year –closed the book and started something new.

    That being said, sometimes a scene depicting a “banned” topic sneaks up on me before I can stop reading and then I have terrible visions for days.

    On the same topic: I refuse to read or listen to any news reports on what that chimp did to that woman and I stop anyone who tries to talk about it. I’m just not the type of person who will stop and gawk at a gory accident. I don’t believe the view will add anything of value to my life and my horrified reaction will in no way help that poor woman.

    On the other hand,if a scene in a book is more fantasy than reality, I’m not averse to reading it, just please, dear writer, don’t sneak one over on me. Give me enough warning to close the book.

  11. Abe
    Abe says:

    Hi Tess,

    If there is one thing that I learned from my Fiction Writing course in college, is that if you write about what you know. Sure there are topics that people do not want to read, especially if that specific topic will bring back bad memories. My sister died 10 years ago from breast cancer and to this day, I find it very hard to use that “C” word, or talk about hospice care. So what I’m saying here Tess, is stay with what you know. Politics can and probably is a boring topic, but Alzheimers, HIV and that dreaded “C” word, unfortunately, hits home too frequently and can be a turn off to some readers.

  12. Crimogenic
    Crimogenic says:

    I can definitely attest to the fact that certain types of novels are hard to sell. I’ve written a “revenge story” thriller where there is an indirect element of pedophilia (meaning pedophilia isn’t really the main focus of the novel), and I’ve been rejected at the agent level quite a few times. So, I wonder if picking a taboo subject has something to do with it. I’m working on another book and I’ve picked my subject matter more wisely this time around.

  13. MattScudder
    MattScudder says:

    While, in general, I agree that such topics are hard sells, I can actually think of one thriller that was not only successful, but a great read involving a main character with brain cancer–OBLIVION by Peter Abrahams. A brilliant book.

  14. Gregory Thomas
    Gregory Thomas says:

    I don’t disagree in principle, but think there’s a danger in making blanket statements. So much is in the presentation. A few years ago there was a debut author’s book about Alzheimer’s that did OK. Seems like it was called, ummm…oh yeah, The Notebook.

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