(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?