What do readers really want?
The header refers, of course, to Freud’s famous question (which he was never able to answer), “What does a woman want?” The question should be of utmost concern to every wine writer, because–unless we write only for ourselves, like poor Emily Dickenson, so alone and dreadful in her little Northampton house–we must constantly ask ourselves if we’re delivering what our readers want and, if so, can we do it better?
The answer for me is complicated, because I write in two rather different venues. People sometimes ask why my blog isn’t more wine geeky. There’s a simple answer for that: I save my geekiness for my work in Wine Enthusiast, where just in the past few weeks I’ve written in depth on the Cabernets of Atlas Peak, coastal Chardonnay and the 2010 vintage. That’s not to mention my reviews and news stories. So it’s in the pages of the magazine you can get my hard-core analyses of what’s happening in California wine.
This blog is a different story, and for various reasons. For one, I don’t want to compete with my own work in the magazine, so I keep a fairly bright line between the two outlets. You won’t find reviews of new wines here. That’s one thing that distinguishes my blog from many others.
There’s something else I do in this blog that I don’t, and can’t, do in the magazine, and that’s to reveal intimacies of my winetasting practices, my personality and attitudes and beliefs, that would be inappropriate for a wine magazine article. (You won’t get much personal politics here, although Lord knows if you’re interested in that, you’ll find plenty of it on my Facebook page.)
But this brings me back to my question in the header: What do readers really want? Do you want to know all kinds of stuff about me, or could you care less? I mean, Parker, Jancis and the rest of the gang never write anything about their personal lives. They keep the subject to wine. Jancis may introduce a little more personality into her writing than, say, Jim Laube, but they’re still very careful about separating their wine identities apart from the rest of themselves, and walling off the latter from public scrutiny.
I’m not that kind of writer. I’ve tried (and failed) numerous times to write novels. I’ve been in two writers groups. I used to write a lot of short fiction that I sent out to magazines; I still have a rejection letter from The New Yorker in which the editor wrote, in his own hand, that my story was pretty good and to keep trying. (I didn’t.) I love literary writing, which is as far away from magaziney-journalistic writing as you can get. I was influenced by Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) and Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail) and their style of “New Journalism” that did not shy away from introducing personal elements, often strongly expressed, into “objective” reporting.
So that’s what I like about blogging. But if I didn’t think my readers liked it, I wouldn’t do it anymore. That’s the difference between a log and a web log: the former is not intended, in most cases, to be read by anyone, while the latter is, by definition, launched into the universe for any and all to see.
I’m not entirely certain why some people want a more personal peek into their wine writers than they used to. Nobody seemed to care what Michael Broadbent did when he went home, or if the Tories drove Professor Saintsbury crazy, or if Haraszthy tasted blind. But that was then; this is now. Even before blogging and the Internet, we found ourselves in a People Magazine era, where readers wanted to know everything that famous people did behind the scenes. I’m not saying I’m famous, but I have some visibility. When I first started blogging, my subject matter was pretty repertorial: Grenache, Happy Canyon, the Ascentia deal, the Calistoga AVA flap. Somewhere along the way, the personal crept in, side by side with objective reporting. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but one that, I think, was driven on to some degree by my readers. The more personal I wrote, the more the numbers went up. So I figured, that’s what readers want.
Still, the nature of writing, and of blogging, is continual change. A writer risks everything if he stays static, never reinventing himself. This blog will change, in interesting and unpredictable ways, as you, the readers, push, prod and poke me into new directions.