So, you might remember that a couple of months ago I did a post called Readers, Writers and Pirates in which I looked at the sense of entitlement that allows some readers to happily steal income from writers while still expecting the writers to continue producing books for them.
That post has a few paragraphs which list other ways some people act out their entitlement issues when it comes to the producers of their favourite content. When I was writing it, that section was a lot longer and looked at the tendency of some readers to personally attack authors in a bit more depth, but it wasn't driving the main point I wanted to make, so I cut it for clarity and length. But I did continue thinking about that and wondering if I should do a post which specifically addressed it.
Then a few weeks ago I woke up and found an unusual message from a Goodreads user in my inbox, and I was given further food for thought.
(I went back and forth with myself over whether to reproduce the whole of that message here, but I decided that wouldn't really be fair to the writer, or help with the debate I want to have. So I'll paraphrase and hopefully you will get the idea.)
The message opened by telling me that the writer had recently been made aware of something I had done (self-reviewing my book, The Night Itself, on Goodreads) which they felt showed me to be an *sshole. They'd read and loved two previous books of mine, and had 'respected' me, but now they were sickened by my pathetic behaviour and in response they would add my books to their 'sh*tlist'. They would never be a reader of mine again. They peppered the post with other swearwords and insults, but that was the gist of it. The message finished by sternly admonishing me that while I may have thought I was being 'funny', in fact I had done something 'disgraceful'.
Disgraceful. Let's all just take a moment to savour that, folks. This is probably the first time I've had the word 'disgraceful' aimed at me since middle school. Feels a bit like being in a Georgette Heyer novel, which actually makes me smile a little. But the use of the word tweaked a memory and got me thinking.
I have no idea who this person is. We've never interacted in any way at all, even online, as far as I'm aware. How often do you write letters to individuals in which you call them an *sshole? And how often do you do this to individuals you have never met, never spoken to before, whose lives and actions have literally zero effect on your life or actions? Bearing that in mind, doesn't the tone of this letter seem a little... strange?
The message assures me that this person is never going to read or buy any of my work again. But surely, having severed that connection between us, it makes even less sense to write to me and personally take me to task, like a maiden aunt berating an unruly member of their Sunday School Class? I don't want to assume I know what's in this person's head, but the tone of the letter seems to be implying that I should... care. Care what they - a complete stranger - think about my behaviour. Maybe even adjust said behaviour accordingly. They seem to think that as the author of a book they liked, I owe them something.
Now, this post isn't really about the message or the person who sent it. It's about the attitude it betrays - which is part of a larger issue. The Entitlement Issue. his manifests in various ways, which often sound something like:
- I spent good money on this book, and now I feel author owes it to me to justify their opinions/writing decisions when I question them on Twitter/Tumblr/Facebook. If they don't then they're being disrespectful to me and their other readers, who are responsible for their success.
- I really liked this author's books until they wrote this story/scene/ending that doesn't fit with my expectations/hopes. Frankly, I feel they betrayed/conned me and all their readers.
- I spent all this time reading this book by this author, and now the next book isn't coming out for ages. Why aren't they providing their readers with more content on a reasonable timescale? How dare they disrespect me and their other readers like that?
- I love this author and their previous book/series, but now they're writing something way out there that doesn't seem like it's aimed at their fans at all. I don't know if they're showing off or just being contrary, but they're being disrespectful to the people that are responsible for their success.
- I thought this author was a certain person, but now it turns out they haven't divulged full details about who they are/their history/their opinions, and now that I know The Truth it's clear their deception has defrauded their readers.
- This author used to provide free stuff, now all of a sudden they expect their loyal readers, who have supported and encouraged them, to pay for their stuff. I'm disgusted!
The Entitlement Issue. Don't get me wrong. I can see how easy one of these attitudes (or all of them) might be to fall into. The other day I learned something about an author whose books I've very much enjoyed, and my first reaction was 'Damn, I liked her books so much. I thought she was better than that...'
Which is where reality slapped me in the face with an OH HELL NO. Expected her to be better than what, exactly? A person who writes books? That is all any author is - a person who writes books that I may or may not like. Just what was I expecting, other than that? I'd picked up and enjoyed this lady's books, sure, but that doesn't mean I know her, or have the right to expect her to act the way I would, or even in a way I like.
You see, this is the root of the G.R.R. Martin is Not Your Bitch problem. This is the root of why Charlene Harris received death threats for daring to finish the Sookie Stackhouse series (links in prev post). This is the root of why, when Stephenie Meyer said in a public interview that she was burned out on vampires, a whole slew of readers on a Twilight message board called *her* a disgrace (which is what tweaked my memory) and told her that she should be ashamed of herself for disrespecting her readers that way. It's the root of why my former reader, on deciding that they no longer wanted to read my books, felt entitled to write me an abusive email about it.
We - I'm talking about readers now - connect to books in such a real and vital way. We take those words inside us and make them real with our own feelings and memories and interpretations. And then, we go online to learn more and find an author's blog and Tumblr, and maybe trade a few comments or Tweets with them. They're funny! They RT links about social justice! Wow, it really does feel like we've made this amazing connection. Like we know this person, have an insight into their deepest selves. Oh my God, how wonderful!
But how perilous, too. Because it's an illusion. I'm the first person to say that you CAN form deep, meaningful relationships online, because a good percentage of my real life best friends are people that I first met online. However, that takes time, and asking questions, and having real conversations, and falling out, and making up, and being there for each other through rough times, and meeting in real life and STILL liking each other. Getting a smiley face reply from an author on Twitter is not the same thing.
Many writers care deeply about their readers. Many interact online with them, answer their letters, spend a lot of time addressing their concerns, answering questions, and offering free, extra content. I am one of those authors. I desperately want my readers to enjoy my work, and I get a warm, motivating glow everytime I find out that they have. There are some readers of mine who've been on this blog since day one, who I feel I know really well, and am very fond of.
BUT. Just because writers chose to give their time to readers this way, that doesn't mean the connection between writer and reader is a statutory right that comes with the purchase or borrowing of a book. The author's time and attention is not a gift with purchase. And it doesn't mean that they are beholden to their readers.
The other week we had the revelation that J.K. Rowling published her debut crime novel under a penname and a pseudonymous bio, that of Robert Gilbraith. In and amongst all the expected sour-grape carping there was disturbing vein of outrage over the fact that J.K. had dared to publish a book under a different name and not tell anyone.
This, said a vocal group of readers, was dishonest. How dare J.K. Rowling bamboozle potential readers by coming up with a fictional identity which was entirely different to her own? This 'fake' name and mendacious biography were inexusable chicanery; readers were owed honesty about the personality and history of the people who wrote the books they bought. They had lost all respect for J.K.R. in the wake of this shameless fraud.
If you are easily offended look away now, Dear Readers, because I have to say it: this is BULLSH*T.
Writers have been publishing work under pennames and made up biographies for hundreds of years. This was either to protect their identities in a time when taking up the pen was considered to be a slightly shady profession, or enable their writing to be assessed fairly on its merits instead of condemned *because* of the personality and history of its writer. Many, many, many female authors, including George Eliot and the Bronte sisters, published their work under male pseudonyms because they knew that it and they would otherwise get a critical savaging. And indeed, when Charlotte Bronte outed herself as a woman, the same critics who had praised Jane Eyre as an astonishing literary work previously immediately turned around and mauled it, decrying it as melodramatical and worthless romantic drivel - in exactly the way that the first one star reviews of The Cuckoo's Calling only started appearing on Amazon after Robert Gilbraith was ratted out.
Now, if you're reading a piece of non-fiction - a reference work published by someone whose credentials are vital to the credibility of the work, or perhaps an autobiography which purports to depict true events of the writer's life - then the life and history of the writer may well be relevant, although they may still chose to publish under a penname.
But when it comes to fiction, the life and history of the writer are none of the readers' business. The reader does not have the right to know anything about the writer. They do not have the right to know the truth about their life or history or qualifications or *anything*. You are buying a book! A work of fiction! You are not buying the writer. If I chose to change my biography tomorrow to say that my mother was a Russian Olympic wrestler and my father a Prima Ballerina who defected together and opened a cake-shop in New York, from whence I fled to join the circus at the age of twelve, and that I now divide my time between juggling bears and writing novels, exactly what would it change? It wouldn't affect the quality of my books, or how much anyone would enjoy them. Therefore, it doesn't matter.
But things like this *do* matter to some readers. They matter exactly because those readers do feel that when they buy (or borrow) a book and spend those hours enjoying this form of entertainment, they have also purchased something else, something intangible, from the writer. The author owes them something now. Honesty, loyalty, consideration, love or respect, or adherance to a certain moral code. Readers who think this way consciously or unconsciously believe reading a book and liking it makes the author of that book accountable to them. Personally.
People can write reviews, even write to me personally, all day long to tell me that they hate or disapprove of my books. That doesn't strike me as odd or make any alarm bells ring. But whether the author has written something you liked or disliked, by the time you pick the book up, they have already fulfilled their part of the bargain in the writer/reader exchange. You have a piece of entertainment, created by them, in your hand. That's all you're actually entitled to.
If an author's conduct disgusts you - as, for example, Orson Scott Card's homophobic ranting disgusts me and so many others - then go ahead and stop reading their books. Call them an *sshole on Twitter. Write a blogpost about it, make .gifs on Tumblr. Go to town! But don't be pretending that they have somehow let you down, personally, because you read and enjoyed their work and as a result they owed it to you to act in a way that you, personally, find acceptable.
The author doesn't owe readers the ending they wanted (especially since it would literally be impossible to give *everyone* their ideal ending). They don't owe readers apologies if the book didn't give them whatever they might have expected based on the cover and blurb. They don't owe explanations for the choices they made in writing that story about those characters. They don't owe readers a career in which they only write the exact same types of books forever. They don't owe readers the next book by a certain date, or free extras on their website, or ebooks that come out on the same date as the physical book at a slight discount, or simultaneous release dates for their book in whatever country the angry reader happens to be in.
Wrtiers are entitled to publish work under a penname. To take as long as they need to write a new book, or to write entirely different kinds of books. To stop writing books at all. To respond as a human being when they - not the content of their books! - get attacked. To not actually care what readers think of them personally, regardless of how many of their books the readers may have read or how much they liked them. Most especially if, despite this, the readers in question are rude or scary.
Writers are people. They can be hurt by you every bit as much as you can be hurt by them. Being published doesn't give them an impenetrable armour which allows rudeness and abuse to fly off. Writers just want to do their jobs, send their books out into the world, and hopefully make a decent living at it. Please do not allow your entitlement issues to either elevate them to the status of gods, or dash them down onto the rocks like disgraced idols.
When someone buys a book, they own it. And that's all. They do not own a piece of the author.
This is my two cents on the topic. What do you guys think? Am I wrong here - do writers owe readers more than just books? Let me know in the comments.
NOTE: Please, please, please, no personal attacks on the letter writer. You don't need to defend me. I just want to talk about the issue, OK? OK. By the same token, personal attacks on me or anyone else I like will be deleted so fast your head will spin, because this is my place and I Haz Teh Banhammer. Other than that, fly free, my children!