Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Reader - Author Barrier

[I'm modeling the title of this post on the "blood-brain barrier"  which keeps nasties like bacteria from getting into our spinal fluid, while allowing in all the happy stuff like oxygen.  If good fences make good neighbors, then a properly constructed barrier allows only healthy things to pass through.]

(Isn't this pretty?  For more information on this photo, go here.)

This post is actually a series of vignettes, but each one illustrates the power of the reader - author interface: why what we feel about books influences how we feel about the author, and vice versa.

1.  I got to meet Deidre Knight a couple weeks ago.  She was in a local Borders bookstore signing copies of her latest book, Butterfly Tattoo.  After the madding crowds had receded, we wandered over to the Romance section (because the book signing was in the Business section -- why do you ask, does that strike you as odd?) and chatted about books.  Butterfly Tattoo notwithstanding, Deidre writes paranormal romances, so when she saw the J.R. Ward Black Dagger Brotherhood books, she got very excited.  "Oh, have you read these?" she asked me.  I had to admit I had not.  ("I started reading one at a friend's house," was my actual lame answer.)  She grabbed Dark Lover and shoved it into my hands.  I guessed I was buying that book!

Deidre's praise for the Black Dagger Brotherhood novels was ardent, and familiar.  "They are like crack."  This isn't a new observation; check out the comment thread in this post on Monkey Bear Reviews.  I think we retain a special affection for those books we just can't get enough of.  (I'm pretty sure Deidre's insistence I buy a "crack" book isn't "pushing" in the strictly legal sense.)

It was what she said next that really caught my attention.  "The characters are so real, I feel I know everything about them."  Then she laughed, "Well, real other than the names, of course."  I laughed too.  Even I knew about the names; Rhage, Zsadist, heh heh.

I don't have a problem with the concept that an author has written characters so vibrant that they seem real, even though they are vampires and other wee ghoulie beasties.  So I started to think which books have characters so real I could walk up to them and start a conversation.

Interestingly, not many books fit that bill for me.  I have lots of favorite books and can visualize lots of characters, but there's still that whiff of fiction about them that keeps them from coming to life in my head.  Then it hit me:  Julia Spencer-Fleming's Millers Kill mysteries.  I want to drive to Hudson Falls, NY (the inspiration for the fictional Millers Kill) and go looking for Clare and Russ.  Or just their homes.  Anything.

2.  Sadly, I'll not be going back to Millers Kill for a while (barring re-reading the entire series for a fourth time...) because the publication date for One Was A Soldier, the seventh in the Millers Kill series, has been pushed back twice now.  It was supposed to be out last October, and then this April.  Currently, Amazon and other sites have the publication date as February 1, 2012.

Two years?  Seriously?  Can I last that long?

Then I think -- Why?  What's up with Julia Spencer-Fleming that the book's delayed?  I really hope it's not bad news.  I know next-to-nothing about this woman, but when I think of what might cause a second delay in the publication of a book, I think of tragedies in her family, illness, writer's block, etc.  Bad stuff.  Stuff I wouldn't wish on anyone.

It's nothing to do with me, of course.  It's none of my business.  I love the books, but loving the books doesn't give me a claim on Ms. Spencer-Fleming's time or talent.  I know she doesn't owe me (or any of her legion of fans) another book or another anything.  If six books are all we get, then they're all we get.  She has -- all authors have -- a life outside of their work, even if the work is all we get on our side of the author-reader barrier.

Well, almost all.  Check out her comment here at Smart Bitches (you'll want to read the post and maybe click on the YouTube clip to get the joke) -- now that's priceless.  So now I know two things about Julia Spencer-Fleming: she writes sublimely, and she's got a great sense of humor.  As for everything else in her life, well it's none of my business but I hope she's okay.

3.  I have a friend who would seriously advocate for an adjustment of the common law of torts to permit lawsuits against authors who mess with recurring characters.  What she's talking about, I believe, is the rage she feels when she picks up the latest in a beloved series and discovers that -- just because he can? -- the author has taken well-established characters and changed them around.  If they were a couple already, now they've split up.  If they were gay, maybe they're now straight.  Something like that.  In my case, it would be like (finally!) reading One Was A Soldier and discovering that Russ went off and married someone else while Clare was "out of town" (no spoilers here) for an extended period.

As maybe not everyone has read Julia Spencer-Fleming's Millers Kill mysteries (and we can't hold up this blog post while you buy and read them), let's use Harry Potter.  Not everyone liked the epilogue at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but really, there was nothing there too extreme or unexpected.  But what if she'd written something to suggest that Hermione had gone over to the Dark Arts and Harry had had to hunt her down for the Ministry of Magic, capture her and see her incarcerated in Azkaban -- oh, you get the idea.  Absurd, of course -- but infuriating even to imagine.

Do authors owe us consistency with beloved characters?  Maybe not to the point of litigation, but I'd say yes in very broad terms.  Julia Spencer-Fleming doesn't owe me another Millers Kill book, but if she publishes one, there are some common-sense limits to what she may do with Clare and Russ.  Mind you, I'd say those limits are very generous: as long as the author can convince us that the changes are possible, then I suspect my friend's lawsuit is thrown out for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted."  But if an author has mucked about with characters in implausible ways, or gratuitously, then I think the lawsuit survives preliminary objections, at least.

4.  I have another, different, friend who said something to me a while back that illustrates another aspect of the reader-author barrier.  My friend -- I'll call her Dianne -- knows a lot of romance authors by virtue of having been a long-time associate member of RWA.  I was chatting with Dianne about a Famous Author whose books are very popular.  "Oh, I never read her stuff," Dianne said.  "I'm sure it's really good, but she's such a drama queen in person that I just don't want to."

(No, I will not tell you which Famous Author Dianne was talking about.  Just know that you've read her books, and almost certainly liked them.)

My point isn't a tacky blind gossip item about Famous Author -- after all, I have no idea if Dianne's opinion of FA is reasonable -- but rather it's this notion that how we feel about an author as a person affects how we feel about her books.  Dianne won't read FA's books because her impression of FA colors the reading experience.

You'll see immediately that this is perhaps a failure of the reader-author barrier: bad stuff has crossed over from author to reader and contaminated the reading experience.  (I hasten to note that one person's "drama queen" is another person's passionately concerned activist.  I'm sure FA would object to the characterization, or be upset by it.  We are none of us completely happy with how others claim to see us.)

So what's better:  some contact between the author and the reader?  No contact?  Or carefully staged contact -- book signings, etc. -- that reduces the chance that the reader thinks she sees an author's alleged feet of clay?  Should authors "be themselves" or should they be guarded and self-censoring?

It's a relevant question in these days of social networking sites.  A pseudonym can help an author maintain some anonymity; two pseudonyms (one for the author's thoughts and comments on the Internet and another for her books) might work even better.  But that's inherently dishonest, a deception that if revealed could alienate fans even more.  Plus, at some point most authors (J.D. Salinger having been a notable exception) show up in person and mingle with their fans.  Do authors owe us their true selves or -- quite to the contrary -- do they owe us a Bowdlerized version of themselves, one with all the ill-humor stripped away, so that we can enjoy their books without concerning ourselves with their personality quirks?

I don't have an answer.  What do you think?  If an author does have a presence online, at book signings, and/or at conventions, what's her best move with respect to her interactions with readers?  Be herself, be her best self, or be a carefully constructed version of herself?


  1. I don't know the answer to this yet, but I do think about it.

    Sometimes I forget I'm a writer and am supposed to have an image or whatever. It's hard to remember that, when writing isn't my full-time job, and when so many of my friends are writers that it's an unremarkable thing to be.

    I think it would kill me if I couldn't have online book talk. Even if my opinions affect how people read my novels, I can't give it up. I was a reader long before I was a writer.

    Now that I've published novels, though, I AM more careful about what I say online about my personal life, even to my real-life friends. It just feels safer.

  2. This is one that is interesting - and I have thought about a lot lately.
    There seems to be less of a barrier in romancelandia then anywhere else? Or am I buried in my sheltered little world?

    I think it is both a good and bad thing in many ways.


  3. You said: "I don't have an answer. What do you think? If an author does have a presence online, at book signings, and/or at conventions, what's her best move with respect to her interactions with readers? Be herself, be her best self, or be a carefully constructed version of herself?" ... and I say, all of the above. As Shakespeare said, "to thine own self be true" ... and she/he must be a) her best self and b) be herself and c) be a carefully constructed version. By that I mean, anything and everything she does must be authentic. Real. My dh has been known to say that the advantage of telling the truth is that you don't have to remember the lies.

    So, author, feel free to edit yourself before you emerge publically, but when you emerge, be authentic. I frankly feel there is nothing to be gained by showing up on review threads, for an author, but of course, "real" authors may not agree with me.

    As for authors who destroy the authenticity of characters they have carefully crafted, hey, let the marketplace decide. When authors do this, I stop buying. Perhaps no more is needed.

  4. Perhaps I'm in the minority, but I have never stopped buying books by an author I enjoyed on the basis of their bad behaviour online or off. Case in point: Anne Perry is a convicted murderer, yet I enjoyed her mysteries for many years.

    I make a clear distinction between the person and their work. With the notable exception of politicians who build their careers by promoting traditional family values, I'm not concerned about their personal "transgressions", to borrow a term from Tiger Woods. It might lower my opinion of them as a person, but if their professional performance is not adversely affected by their private life, I don't see why the two should be linked.

  5. Sarah, well said. I don't know if I'm always able to transcend that inherent judging part of me, but I do try. Authors are people, too, with such as many flaws and foibles as the rest of is. Expecting them to always be on their utmost ideal behavior is unreasonable. Having said that, people in the limelight should be circumspect, Janet Webb said above, "...feel free to edit yourself."

    Social media, particularly, Twitter makes it very hard to self-edit before hitting send. I've always had a firm position in my mind that I will not talk political stuff anywhere online other than my personal journal (not blogspot, but livejournal). And despite it, I find myself retweeting or ocassionally tweeting and also sharing FBook sharing political posts. I catch them afterwards, but sometimes delete them, otherwise let them go with an inner note to try to avoid them in the future.

    Now, in RL I am interested in politics, I do believe in Obama, I am... &c. &c. That's the authentic me. But do I want to invite controversy by throwing it out there? No. And that's a personal choice. It doesn't make me inauthentic. What I do abhore is if I were to come across as Repub simply to pander to my friend circle. That's where I draw the line.

  6. BTW Are you going to read the JR Ward??
    If you do, will you do a review for us???
    huh? huh?
    Pretty please with a cherry on top!?!


  7. I've been holding off commenting -- nah, I'll be honest: I commented immediately in response to Victoria's post, but Blogger (the hateful despised Blogger that I, regretfully, have not had time to replace with WordPress) ate my comment.

    And actually that seemed providential. Because I wanted to see what you all think about this. Like Victoria, I don't have an answer, but I think about it.

    Here's what I think about authors -- they're human. At the same time, I know that I might be like Dianne and refuse to read someone's work simply because I didn't like the author in person. (I didn't read Jenny Crusie's work for 10 years because I met her once and she was perfectly pleasant, but . . . I don't know -- something rubbed me the wrong way. That's all on me, seriously. But I still didn't read her work. Fairness doesn't seem to enter into these visceral reactions.)

    And here's what I think about my own situation. If I got published, I'd still be me. I suspect some people think I'm pompous and a know-it-all. I have, on occasion, tried hard to be restrained and less opinionated. I could do that for the length of a public outing where I was performing as an author. But here, at my own blog, I really just have to be myself.

    I don't always get it right, in tone or in action. But I learned a long time ago that all I can do is accept criticism gracefully, apologize immediately for my mistakes (because there will always be mistakes), and try to do better next time.

    Is that enough? Maybe not, and almost certainly not for everyone. Katiebabs has that wonderful post about the "in-crowd" and I think she's right that someone somewhere thinks she's better than me. But that situation is not within my control.

  8. Edie --

    BTW Are you going to read the JR Ward??
    If you do, will you do a review for us???
    huh? huh?
    Pretty please with a cherry on top!?!

    Sure. But why? Aren't there other reviews of JR Ward's Black Dagger books out there? Why, pray tell, would you specifically want my take on this beloved ♥ ♥ ♥ series?

    Or is this one of these "let's get Magdalen the Cranky Pants to review it -- she hates everything!" moments?

  9. Your #3 reminds me of Stephen King's "Misery," in which the psychotic fan objects to the author killing off the heroine, and compels him not merely to resurrect her, but to do so in a manner consistent with the laws of physics and the published account of her death. (You may recall that I objected to the Harry Potter epilogue on the ground that I didn't think it was consistent with the world as described in the earlier seven books.)

  10. Cos it really is awful (Yet I read the first four - five? books) and I am mean??
    And I think you could get some mileage out of it... and I would be endlessly entertained?

    Isn't that why you are here? To entertain me??



  11. Henry -- Hmm, you'll need to tell me more about your issues with Rowling's epilogue to Book #7 (because, while I may recall your objections, I have to admit I don't actually them) -- we'll talk.

    Edie -- Oh, wow, you sure know how to put the pressure on. I will try my best.

    And of course I'm here to entertain you and only you? How could you ever doubt it? ♥

  12. As I just said on twitter, no pressure intended. I am just dying of curiosity to see your reaction to the book.
    Whether you will inhale it or end up with a big pile of WTF?!

    ((hugs)) for recognising the world revolves around me.
    I is terrible I know.


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